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Veterans Fishing Organization serves those who have served the country

For many veterans, fishing is a way to relax, but just finding someone who can help them in and out of a boat can sometimes be a struggle. Veterans Fishing Organization, a local 501c3 nonprofit, hopes to relieve that struggle.

The organization was founded by Ken Bearden, a local fishing guide, in 2016 in honor of his friend and fishing buddy, Vietnam veteran Joe Gilham. Bearden said he and Gilham went fishing together, and he saw how fishing improved Gilham’s spirits as he dealt with complications from Agent Orange. Gilham died in 2013, and now Bearden spends hours every week talking to veterans and taking them fishing. 

“We have been able to reach a lot of guys that need that therapy of being out on the water,” Bearden said. “My goal is to take out 100 a year. … If we can make a difference in one of those veterans’ lives, I feel like we’ve been successful.”

The veterans who take part receive far more than just a chance to go fishing though.

“The fishing is important, but the fellowship that you have out there on the water when you are with another guy, and you talk about things other than fishing — thoughts about life,” said Bill Cobb, a U.S. Navy veteran. “All of the guys that I’ve found are Christian. I guess if you are in the military, you know God. You’ve got to.”

Cobb and Bearden met at a boat ramp where they began talking about a mutual love of fishing. 

“He said, ‘I would love to get out in a boat like that, but I’m a disabled veteran. I can’t put a boat in, and I don’t have anybody in the family that can,’” Bearden said. “So, I handed him my card, and said, ‘Well, you met the right guy today.’”

Cobb said that going fishing with Bearden and other veterans has not only lifted his spirits, but it has helped him find resources available for veterans.

“It was 100 percent [disability] when I met [Bearden], but there were additional benefits that I didn’t know about,” Cobb said. “That [information] was the big thing.”

Bearden said that helping veterans find the information that they need is an important part of what he does. 

“The day he went fishing with me, he was not getting around good,” Bearden said. “He is a totally different person from the first day we went fishing. I was having to help him in and out of the boat, help him up and down all throughout the day, and that is why I asked him that day, I said, ‘Have you checked to see if Parkinson’s is on the list for Agent Orange?’”

The experience is free to veterans, so VFO relies on donations from businesses and individuals as well as grant funding in order to pay for gas, insurance and other necessities.

“It doesn’t cost anything,” Bearden said. “As long as we can stay funded with donations and grants, no veteran will ever have to pay.”

Right now, Bearden said VFO is struggling to fund fishing trips for veterans this fall, when the cool weather will be more agreeable for both fish and veterans.

“We are trying to get funded for September, October and November because the weather is going to cool off, and the fish are going to be biting,” Bearden said. “We had enough money to get us halfway through this year, but the grants that would get us through the second half were turned down. You only get like one out of every seven grants you write, so I really need the businesses in town to get behind us.”

One of the ways that Bearden is working to make up for that funding is by selling advertising space on his truck, which clearly shows what the funding is going toward. 

“I debated on and off on whether to do that to the truck, but I thought it might help draw businesses to support it,” Bearden said. “It ended out drawing more veterans than it has businesses.”

Bearden said the truck gets around a million views a month due to the number of miles that he travels driving to veteran events and taking veterans fishing. In the end, he said the most important parts of the organization are the veterans, the relationships they form and their experiences out on the water.

“Fishing for me is an adrenaline rush,” Cobb said. “I don’t fish to keep the fish, but the adrenaline rush, the pursuit of the fish [is great].”

To learn more about Veterans Fishing Organization Inc., visit Vfohome.org, call (706) 884-0494 or check out its Facebook page.