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Casting for inner peace

Guide hopes to help veterans through fishing

By John N. Felsher

Standing in a boat on a beautiful reservoir and casting a fishing rod doesn’t seem that incredible for most people. Millions of anglers do it every day across the country, but Ruben Pedro took a long time to reach Neely Henry Lake.

No, the drive to the Coosa River impoundment just south of Gadsden didn’t take very long from his home in Valley, but Ruben came by way of Iraq and Afghanistan. After serving in the U.S. Army for 13 years, Sergeant First Class Pedro will be medically retired because the infantry soldier sustained multiple wounds during three combat tours.

Ruben Pedro fights a fish on Neely Henry Lake.

“I started fishing late in life, but fell in love with it,” the New Jersey native recalls. “It became an addiction. I mainly fished out of kayaks, but had surgery after surgery and physically couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t fish for about 18 months before I met Ken Bearden.”

Bearden, a bass fishing guide, met another veteran, Joe Gilham, in 2001. Joe served in Vietnam and suffered complications from his exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant sprayed to clear the jungles during the war. Despite Gilham’s declining health, the two fished as often as his condition would allow.

“In the last 18 months of his life, Joe got so sick that the only way he could go fishing was if I took him,” Ken remembers. “I made a point to take him whenever I could. After I lost my father, Joe became like a father to me.”

Gilham died in 2013, another casualty from a war that ended decades earlier. As a bass guide, Bearden participated in many charity tournaments, but Joe’s death inspired him to create his own organization to give something back to veterans who had endured and sacrificed for their country.

“After Joe passed, his wife would always thank me for taking him fishing,” Ken says. “She told me how much it meant to her husband. Taking Joe fishing kept him from getting depressed. She said that if I hadn’t taken him fishing, Joe would have died much earlier. She told me that thousands of other vets just like Joe would love for someone to take them fishing.”

Bearden officially obtained 501(c)(3) non-profit status for the Veterans Fishing Organization in March 2017. He wanted to help combat veterans from all wars, particularly those afflicted with physical disabilities or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He wanted to take vets fishing so they could forget about their physical and mental problems – at least for a while. Since March 2017, Bearden has taken more than 150 veterans on fishing adventures.

“Because Joe was a Vietnam veteran, I wanted to help other vets,” Ken explains. “I spent most of my life not having a clue what our military people go through. I never served myself, but I want to do something for those who did serve. I feel like this is something that I’ve been called to do. There’s a void in many veterans’ lives that needs to be filled. If we can make a difference in the lives of just a few veterans, we’ve been a success.”

Like many others, Ruben found out about VFO on Facebook and contacted Ken. Bearden called him the next day and invited him fishing.

“We had a great day and caught many fish,” Ruben says. “I didn’t think I would get a chance to fish like that again. When I’m standing up fishing all day, I feel pain. I get tired and my back aches, but I’m in a lot better place than I was. I forget about all the other stuff for a while and just keep casting. A few weeks later, Ken invited me again.”

After Ken fishes with veterans, he always follows up with a phone call a few days later. He periodically calls them again just to check on them and talk. For many veterans, that personal contact and knowledge that someone cares means more to them than catching a fish.

“I’ve done things with other veteran organizations, but that personal one-on-one was never there like with Ken,” Ruben says. “From one day of fishing, it grew into a friendship. When someone comes back from Afghanistan or Iraq, a lot of bad stuff sticks with that person. Veterans are hurting mentally and physically. When I came home, mentally, I was down in the gutter. Ken taking me fishing got me out of that mental rut, which also helped improve the physical part. Ken helped me to realize that I could still do things and my life can get better. I highly recommend VFO to every veteran.”

Vets never pay for VFO trips. Ken receives some tax-deductible private grants and holds fundraisers, but as a one-man operation, he needs help. He’s looking for someone to improve his website and volunteers to help with events. He also needs donations of cash and products to use for fundraising.

For more information, see www.vfohome.org or call 706-884-0494.