In 2001, Ken Bearden met Joe Gilham, a Vietnam War veteran. The two men became close friends and frequently fished West Point Lake.
Gilham suffered from exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to thin jungle growth during the war. Gilham’s declining health didn’t stop them from fishing as often as his condition would allow.
“In the last 18 months of his life, he got so sick that he couldn’t get the boat back on the trailer and get it home,” Bearden recalled. “The only way he could go fishing was if I took him. I made a point to take him whenever I could. Sometimes, we’d fish two or three times a week.”
Gilham died in 2013, another casualty of a war that officially ended more than 40 years ago, but battles never ended for many of the people who fought in it. As a bass guide, Bearden had participated in events to help veterans in the past. That inspired him to start his own organization, the Veterans Fishing Organization (VFO), as a way to give back to veterans who have suffered and sacrificed for their country.
“When Joe passed away, his wife and I started this organization in remembrance of him,” Bearden said. “She said that if I hadn’t taken him fishing like I did, Joe would have died much earlier. She said that fishing gave Joe something to look forward to and talk about.”
Bearden obtained non-profit status for VFO in March 2017 with the mission of providing combat veterans, particularly those suffering from physical disabilities or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an opportunity to fish and forget about their problems for a while. Bearden hopes to create a network of guides across Georgia, Alabama and other states, so that veterans living near other lakes can enjoy the same opportunities.
For more information, see www.vfohome.org or call Bearden at (706) 884-0494.