As the eldest of 7 children abandoned at young ages and having to grow up in foster care and group homes, Bryan Hildebrandt had to keep it together for his siblings in the unstable times they faced. He had very little opportunity to experience a typical childhood. At 20 years old Bryan moved in with his aunt and her husband who happened to be a U.S. Marine.
“He immolated the dad I never had so I wanted to become a Marine.”
Inspired by his uncle, Bryan chose to follow in his footsteps and join the marines. Arriving at the recruitment building, he was greeted by Staff Sergeant Cornell. Soon after, Bryan was in boot camp beginning his long military career.
9/11 Fallout – GO, GO, GO
While in boot camp our country experienced the terrorist attack of 9/11. Following boot camp, the first 10 years of Bryan’s military career was focused on 9/11 fallout. He was among the Marines assigned with the first wave to invade Iraq. He witnessed the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down and helped the mission to free the Iraqi people. This would be the first of six deployments Bryan completed within his 20-year commitment to the United States Marines. Because of the “GO! GO! GO” of multiple deployments Bryan’s mental health suffered. He began drinking heavily in efforts to help cope with what he witnessed during those deployments.
“I compartmentalized everything going on in my life. I was drinking a lot, but I met my wife 5 days after I came back from Iraq on June 4th, 2003. She has been my guiding light and helped keep me focused if I start to steer off my path.”
Following his 20-year commitment to the United States Marine Corp, Bryan decided to make some significant life changes. He decided to quit drinking and embrace a new passion: kayak fishing. Fishing held a special place in his heart as his grandfather was a lure maker when he was growing up.
Kayak fishing became a therapeutic outlet for Bryan, offering a familiar activity and a way to connect with nature, providing solace after his trying military service.
“Being able to utilize aquatic therapy and getting on the water with my peers and people that have the same problems that I do to reset and talk about family helps us feel better about ourselves. We need that help.”
Healing Through Giving Back
Driven by the need to maintain connections and help others like him, Bryan started a group called Mad Anglers, which quickly grew to include over 200 people. This group was truly a support system helping each other through any life challenges. Whether facing divorce, substance abuse, or anxiety issues, members found a safe space to share their struggles without judgment.
Recognizing the power of kayak fishing and the healing potential of connecting with peers, Bryan became involved with Heroes on the Water through word of mouth. HOW offered a unique space for veterans and first responders to gain community through recurring events.
Bryan believes what sets HOW apart from other nonprofits is its commitment to consistency and personalization. Participants are encouraged to attend events as often as they like, allowing for continuous engagement and the development of deeper connections.
“HOW allows people to be more vulnerable to talk about what is going on without any debt commitment. This has been something for us to stay connected with fishing and aquatic therapy. Love the program.”
Heroes on the Water welcomes not only veterans but also police officers, firefighters, and their families. By sharing their stories and experiences, participants empower one another to become stronger, creating a united and supportive community.
The reason participants keep coming back to HOW, Bryan believes, lies in the profound impact of shared experiences. Witnessing the transformative effect of a fellow participant’s story reinforces the belief that healing, and growth are possible. By consistently showing up and providing support, Bryan and his fellow mentors demonstrate loyalty, compassion, and a listening ear. Together, they create an environment where individuals can heal and find solace in the shared love for kayak fishing and the sense of belonging to something greater.
“I can express feelings to others and be used as a platform to show you can heal – you can get better mentally. The more we stay involved the more the healing process unfolds.”
Heroes on the Water is a 501(c)3 that is dedicated to serving our U.S. military veterans, active-duty, law enforcement, first responders and their families. These brave men and women benefit from recurring participation in our chapter events. Help us keep them coming back! Join the Honor Circle today!