Jon Soltz served in the Army in Kosovo and Iraq. In 2011, he was one of the last troops to leave the country. Upon his return home that year -- his second tour of Iraq -- fishing became an important part of his life.
"Fishing is an outlet for me," he says. "Nothing is more relaxing than being on the water."
Like many veterans, Soltz faced some adjustments upon returning to civilian life. Being in the outdoors, especially fishing, has become a big part of his strategy for coping with these challenges. And Soltz found the outdoors readily accessible -- and plenty of good fishing -- in America's public lands.
So Soltz, through his own experiences with war and readjustment, founded a veterans' organization in 2009 to help keep public lands and waters protected and accessible. His brainchild is Vet Voice Foundation, a national veterans' advocacy group that works to improve conservation policy and connect veterans to the outdoors.
Soltz says, "Many veterans have a natural love of the outdoors. We fish, hunt, hike and otherwise enjoy our public lands with friends and family members. And getting outdoors is a wonderful way to reintegrate when we return home from war."
He adds, "America's public lands are an important part of our national heritage, a heritage that veterans have defended since Teddy Roosevelt -- himself a distinguished military veteran -- established our first national forests and monuments more than a century ago."
Vet Voice Foundation builds partnerships with other national and local groups working to conserve public lands. One such partnership, with the national sportsmen's organization Trout Unlimited, has produced a series of outings with veterans and fishing guides in California trout streams to highlight the importance of public lands for veterans and for fishing opportunities.
On October 19, 2013, Vet Voice Foundation and Trout Unlimited hosted a vets fishing outing on Lake Cachuma, in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, near Santa Barbara. Soltz came all the way from Washington, D.C. to be there -- it was a day of fishing, after all.
"There is a deep bond between the sportsmen and veteran communities," he said while trolling for fish deep in the lake. "And conservation is the key to keeping the places we love to hunt and fish in good condition, so that our kids and future generations of vets will have the same opportunities that we have today."
On Lake Cachuma, veterans from all over southern California came to spread this gospel. They were joined by representatives from Trout Unlimited, local fishing groups, and the Central Coast Wild Heritage Campaign. Lake Cachuma is fed by streams that flow from the Los Padres National Forest, and the event organizers called for permanent protection of Mono and Indian Creeks and the Santa Ynez River.
Jessica Strickland, California Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, helped organize the event. She brought her brother, who was recently discharged from the Navy, to Lake Cachuma. "If you are a fisherman," said Strickland, you care about water -- where it comes from, its temperature and quality. It's vitally important to protect feeder streams like Mono and Indian creeks so that they will continue to deliver cold, clean water to downstream fisheries and keep places like Lake Cachuma productive."
Vet Voice Foundation has worked for several years to protect portions of the Los Padres National Forest. In addition to certain streams, VVF wants to protect the Condor Ridge area as Wilderness. The area that is proposed for Wilderness designation is over 18,000 acres, and boasts magnificent views of the Gaviota Coast, Channel Islands and Santa Ynez Valley.
Rick Reyes and Mario Rivas, from southeast Los Angeles, answered the call on the 19th. Both men, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, have previously been involved with VVF's work to support protection of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest, an area in their backyard.
Rivas believes the effort to protect these fishing areas and proposed wilderness are of equal importance. "Public lands belong to us all," he said. "As veterans, we want to see these lands protected for future generations, after all, we served overseas to ensure these lands and this country remain free."
Vitali Mostovoj, a retired Air Force officer and resident of Ventura County, has volunteered with VVF since its inception and was at Lake Cachuma with a fishing rod in his hand all day. Mostovoj participated in the event with his son, Andy, who like his father served on active duty in the Army as an officer.
Mostovoj emigrated from Germany after the Second World War. His love of the outdoors began as a child in this country. "I was amazed with the wide open spaces and wild lands of America," he said. "I have always had a passion for getting outdoors and this was something that I introduced to my son at a very young age." Father and son have frequented many national parks and other public lands over the years and have used these visits as a means to bond.
Mostovoj said protecting the Los Padres National Forest is particularly important to him, as it is very close to his home in Thousand Oaks. Referring to the support of local members of Congress for creating new designations for some parts of the Los Padres, he added, "I am very happy that both Representatives Lois Capps and Julia Brownley are committed to protecting this area."
Fishing is big business in California. The state has more than two million licensed anglers, who contribute more than $2.1 billion annually to the state's economy. According to a 2013 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation of all varieties generates $85 Billion in consumer spending in the Golden State and supports more than 700,000 jobs.
Soltz, Chairman of VVF and avid fisherman and conservationist, had a smile on his face the whole day. "Our veterans, sportsmen and local businesses depend on our public lands," he said. "We've got to make sure our national parks, forests, lakes and rivers stay in good shape and accessible for veterans, who have sacrificed so much to defend our homeland. The voice of the veterans' community is making a difference on this issue and VVF is proud to be a part of this effort."