New group working with veterans, first responders

Eric Falkner fishes from a kayak at Camp American Legion in Oneida County during a Wisconsin Hero Outdoors event over Labor Day weekend. (Photo by Dylan Nasi)

There are a lot of solid nonprofit groups that help out veterans, the physically challenged, and other worthy people and causes, but that didn’t stop Eric Falkner, of Pewaukee, from starting one that he felt was needed – Wisconsin Hero Outdoors (WHO).

“We started this group to promote the individual,” Falkner said. “Not just veterans, but also first responders. Because the effects of trauma among our heroes are universal. We thought there is no good reason to help one and not the other. From personal experience we wanted to broaden the opportunity for outdoor activities where many just focus on one,”

Falkner enlisted in the Marine Corps three days after 9/11 and completed boot camp at Pendleton, but suffered an injury that ended up leading to a medical discharge.

“I sustained a back injury while on active duty in the USMC and was medically discharged in April of 2002,” he said.  “After therapy and rehabilitation, I was cleared to be a firefighter at Wales Genesee Fire Department, where I completed the fire academy and EMT Basic Academy and was also the only member to work simultaneously on the Mukwonago dive team.”

However, more job-related injuries and a non-job-related injury forced Falkner to end his career as a firefighter in July 2015. Whether it was bad luck, or actually a blessing in disguise so he could start this group, a path was set for him.

“I was introduced to Jason Bartol while going through treatment at the Milwaukee VA, and after going kayak fishing with Jason and other veterans and first responders, I was hooked. The camaraderie and outdoor activities did nothing short of save my life.”

As time passed, Falkner and Bartol saw the need and opportunity for getting people involved in not just kayak fishing but a variety of outdoor activities for mental and physical well-being. They decided to take the next steps in formalizing their group.

“We partnered with Waukesha County Community Foundation and formed the Wisconsin Hero Outdoors Fund 501c3,” Falkner said. “Additionally, I applied for and was accepted to establish a legal advisory team with UW-Madison Law School’s Legal and Entrepreneur Clinic that will be helping us expand our organization’s infrastructure and processes at no cost, allowing for donations to be used directly for our mission.”

WHO does not really have a “membership” to sign up for. About the closest thing they have to a membership is the followers they have on Facebook.

“We don’t want people to feel like they need to be approved in order for them to get the experiences they need to help them through the tough times,” Falkner said. “Participants can come to one event or all the events at any regularity they choose and based on availability of space at an outing. Our organized outings encourage the development of personal relationships whereby smaller groups can organize on their own.”

Like most nonprofit groups, WHO has sponsors that help to keep the group operating.

“We prefer to think of them as partners as opposed to sponsors,” he said. “Some offer more regular support than others and we are open to collaboration providing it supports our mission of helping heroes and their families connect to the outdoors.”

Falkner said that although he’d love to expand, he has no plans to do so nationally at this time. He’s fine with sticking right here in Wisconsin but he’d still like to expand the reach of his group to include people who need their help.

“WHO would like to have a well-established working relationship with all VA medical facilities in Wisconsin as well as the ability to help provide access to outdoor activities throughout the state for veterans, first responders and their families,” he said.

For more information about the group, go to or email Falkner at

Categories: Wisconsin – Dan Durbin

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