Finding Purpose Through Solidarity
The Union and Fishing Changed the Course of a SMART Member’s Life After the Marines
By PJ DelHomme
Marine Bryan Schroeder had a long road from enlistment to full-time union sheet metal fabricator. Along the way, he made some friends and took plenty of them fishing.
Bryan Schroeder enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school. In 2011, he was honorably discharged. At 22, he knew how to be a Marine, but being a civilian proved to be the real challenge.
“I thought it was going to be easy,” says the 35-year-old veteran. “I thought I was going to come out and conquer the world, but I kinda fell flat on my face.” He came home to Washington State, finding that his high school friends had moved, and many of his buddies were still enlisted or living elsewhere. Schroeder couldn’t connect with anyone who wasn’t a veteran. He struggled with anxiety and depression. “Coming from a place where you know that the person next to you would literally take a bullet for you to not having anyone was extremely hard,” he says.
To make matters worse, the economy was still coming out of a recession, and the job market was tight. Schroeder got a job at a sporting goods store selling guns. Married with one kid at the time, he made $12/hour with no real benefits.
Fishing had always been his passion, having gone with his dad for as long as he can remember. For one birthday, he splurged and bought a guided fishing trip. He caught three big steelhead, posted them to his Facebook page, and got a call from someone at The Fallen Outdoors, which organizes outdoor adventures for veterans. They asked him to take a few fellow veterans fishing. Say what you will about social media, but Schroeder’s Facebook post of a few big fish would change his life.
The Fallen Outdoors
In 2014, Eric Bakken met Schroeder while still serving in the Army. Today, Bakken works as a USA event coordinator, but back in 2009, he and two other soldiers created The Fallen Outdoors (TFO). Within a year of that initial phone call and taking a couple groups of veterans fishing, Schroeder was supervising and coordinating fishing events with 30-40 boats for more than 100 veterans. Some of the veterans who caught their first steelhead with Schroeder are now fishing guides themselves in the Pacific Northwest. “That’s one of his legacies at TFO,” says Bakken. “He ran that program for five years, and thousands of veterans have gone through it.”
Schroeder was 100 percent invested. He hosted seminars on tying jigs and set up booths outside sporting goods stores to raise money. The program gave him direction. And while he was a volunteer giving back to his brothers, there was much more going on.
“It saved my life,” Schroeder says without hesitation. “I dedicated so much time to TFO because I knew it worked. Eric and I talked about it a lot. We knew that we could change lives in a positive manner and keep them from becoming a statistic. Affecting just one veteran makes it all worth it.”
After serving in the Army for nine years, Bakken got out in 2014. Along the way, he and Schroeder became close friends. “When I got out of the military, he helped me with that transition,” says Bakken.
Non-union to Union Transition
By the time Bakken was discharged, Schroeder had left his job working at a gun counter and was working construction, first roofing, then transitioning to architectural sheet metal. The work paid more than selling guns but not by much.
He was approached by union reps about joining Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 66 (SMART 66), but Schroeder was hesitant at first. He had some misconceptions about unions, he says. “People think you’re going to be laid off a lot, that there’s not a lot of union work. That you pay union dues, and they’re stealing from you.” Schroeder’s reality was working 60-hour work weeks, negotiating his own pay, and paying exorbitant rates for health insurance for his growing family.
To join SMART 66, Schroeder had taken a reduction in pay for the first year as an apprentice. That wasn’t appealing, but, he says, the move to join paid off. Because of his experience, the union “salted him in” and gave him direct entry. That was in 2017. Today, he fabricates sheet metal in HVAC installations, bringing home a paycheck well north of his old, non-union job. Plus, he gets great training and benefits. And there are intangibles. “The quality of the work and general attitude of the people are better,” he says. “I’m much happier with the union.”
The Hunt with Brotherhood Outdoors
By the time he was involved with SMART 66, Schroeder had to step back from the fishing trips with TFO. There weren’t enough hours in the day. He and Bakken had become close friends, fishing and waterfowl hunting when they could. As a soldier, Bakken takes every opportunity to poke a little fun at his Marine brother, never missing a chance to bring up the old crayon-eating Marine joke. “I make sure to keep my boat stocked with crayons,” Bakken says with a laugh. “He likes purple the best.”
Joking aside, the two have raised thousands of dollars for TFO and USA. Schroeder was at the first TFO fund-raising banquet and got his union to buy tables and attend. He’s also a great ambassador for Union Sportsmen, helping with USA dinners that support local conservation projects. In 2019, he volunteered at the USA’s 3rd Annual Washington State BCTC Conservation Dinner. During the height of COVID, he participated in the USA’s first virtual dinner, and he plans to work the 4th Annual Washington State BCTC Conservation Dinner on April 29.
Work, family, and volunteering don’t leave much time for hunting, which is something Schroeder always wanted to do. Bakken encouraged him to apply for a hunt with Brotherhood Outdoors, USA’s video series that takes union members on the adventures of a lifetime.
Schroeder applied, and he was accepted for a hunt in British Columbia for elk, mule deer, and black bear in the fall of 2022. “I had no idea what I was in for,” Schroeder admits. They were beating brush and hiking off-trail in terrain that was far different than the hills of Washington. He saw a massive black bear and took a bead on a 7×7 bull elk, but neither encounter ended in a punched tag. He did pull the trigger on a mule deer in velvet. After that trip, the hook was set.
“You could say that B.C. was my first taste,” Schroeder says. “I’m going back.” Schroeder has since booked another hunt with the same outfitter for 2024, and this time, he’s taking his brother.
After his discharge from the Marines, Schroeder’s life could have taken a different direction, and this could have been a very different story. A couple of fishing photos on Facebook and a leap of faith to join Local 66 helped him find his calling. “Because of the union, I was able to purchase my dream home at 32,” he says. “I also have extremely good health care for me and my family, and that is priceless.”
“The best thing about Bryan is that when life gives you what you deserve, he’s still around taking care of people,” says Bakken. “He’s still out there being a voice for veterans.”
USA4Life video features and blogs are proudly made possible by the following sponsors: ULLICO, IBEW, NECA, SMART and the UA Veterans in Piping program.