Kabetogama Lake

Boaters on Kabetogama Lake Aug. 15-18 may see the red, white and blue boats carrying Veterns on the Water anglers.

When you talk to Steve Gillaspie, his passion for his fellow veterans is palpable. Even through the phone.

"I bleed red, white and blue," said the former United States Army ranger and Vietnam vet from Arlington, Minn.

Gillaspie established Veterans on the Water in 2016, with the goal of providing veterans a fishing experience that includes excitement, fun and laughter.

That goal covers any and all veterans and at absolutely no cost to the veterans, something Gillaspie stresses.

Gillaspie and the nonprofit organization will bring a group of about 16 veterans, along with several red, white and blue boats, to Kec's Kove on Kabetogama Lake Aug. 15-18, at the invitation of resort owner Larry Kec.

Kec said he'd heard about the organization's experience at Vermilion Lake last year and committed to getting involved by reaching out to Gillaspie.

Once Kec began organizing the Kabetogama experience, he said local folks also wanted to get involved. Members of the Kabetogama Guide Association, made up of local fishing guides, will do their best to put the group on fish, he said. The resort has offered the veterans lodging and has connected them with all they need.

"Everyone jumped in," Kec said, noting the resort takes part in other events that don't seem to help anyone. "I wanted to give something to someone who deserves it."

Kec said this year marks the 50th anniversary of the resort, making the timing right to give something back to people, he said.

While Kec said he is not a veteran, his father and brothers are. And as a senior in high school with a low draft number, he said he would have likely went to Viet Nam had the United States not pulled out when it did, in 1973.

Gillaspie, who says he looks like Santa Claus, said it's important to include any and all veterans, adding some organizations pick and choose the veterans they want to include.

"We don't pick and choose," he said. "We take on all vets. Anybody that's been in the service is a vet."

Gillaspie said, regardless of any issues a veteran may have that might concern other groups, they're welcome.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "We'll figure out a way to accommodate and take them out fishing."

The organization has a pontoon, among its fleet of 35 boats, that can accommodate wheelchairs, he said.

In addition, he said some veterans, such as those who served as MOS, don't really consider themselves as vets because they didn't fight in a war. MOS refers to military occupational specialty, the service people who provided support, such as cooks and mechanics.

"And that's sad," he said. "They're vets and they're welcome."

Also, veterans who served in all branches of the military are welcome, adding that Navy and Air Force veterans should expect some good-natured ribbing from their Army counterparts.

"It's all in good fun," he said. "They get excited and enjoy every minute of the trip."

And while fishing is the reason for getting in the boats, Gillaspie said there's more going on.

"You'd be surprised how veterans open up to each other," he said, noting the intimacy that spending all day in a boat encourages.

Age is also of no matter to Veterans on the Water. The eldest vet at age 95 made 10-15 trips, Gillaspie said, adding he became a sort of mascot for the group before recently dying. Many of the vets are in their 80s and 90s.

"This keeps them younger, thinking about the trip, giving them something to look forward to," he said.

"I am a jokester, the type of guy that will tell the guy with one leg that he's moving too slowly," he said. "They don't want pity, or for people to feel sorry for them."

He started the organization after he rebuilt a pontoon to take a few vets out fishing, but it only helped three people, he said.

"I wondered why not do this for all vets," Gillaspie said.

And while donations are made to Veterans on the Water, Gillaspie has been funding it himself since day one, and continues to do most of the work on the boats.

The organization has taken about 160 veterans on the water, and will have provided seven fishing trips at year end, he said. The fishing trips range from one day to several days.

Often, the veterans were avid anglers during their lives, but as their abilities have changed from disabilities or age, their time on the water has ended.

Gillaspie said Borderland residents can get involved in future trips by donating money, fishing equipment, or even offering use of their property from which the group could fish.

"If someone has a place on the lake where we could get the bus in and unload even 10 people with a dock we could use for a few boats, that would be great," he said.

Recommended for you