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Thanking veterans with a unique fishing experience

‘Veterans on the Water’ established by Vietnam vet

Steve Gillaspie, 68, of Arlington, is a decorated U.S. Army Ranger Vietnam combat veteran.

Veterans on the Water founder Steve Gillapsie, of Arlington, shows some of the many photos of fishing trips taken by veterans at no cost to them to various lakes around the state. Photo by Steve Palmer

He understands what it means to have courageously served his country. He has a Purple Heart and two medals for valor to prove it.

Steve said this story should not be about him, but about his appreciation of the sacrifices of those in the military that have led him on founding “Veterans on the Water.”

For Gillaspie, it’s an opportunity to offer a fishing experience of excitement, outdoor enjoyment, fun and a shared brotherhood of laughter for all service personnel of any age or physical disabilities at no cost to them.

The Arlington businessman started his idea for free veteran fishing trips about two years ago after recognizing that many veterans had given up on the sport of fishing that they had loved for a long time mainly because they couldn’t get around like they used to and didn’t want to bother others.

So, the Veterans on the Water project was born in 2015 and started on a small scale when Gillaspie bought a little pontoon and took a few veterans fishing.

During the following winter months of 2016 Gillaspie ramped up the project and began expanding his fleet by restoring older boats, in a workshop on his farm. This season he will have 26 boats including four 16-foot Lunds and three pontoons to take veterans fishing.

Gillaspie has been assisted by 15-year-old Dakota Reihler with boat restoration. “He’s a good worker, hard to find a young man like that, and I think he could even build his own boat,” he noted.

“We get the 30 or 40-year-old boats that people really don’t want anymore, tear them down and completely refurbish them. When we’re finished they’re almost like returning to new condition, and of course, we paint them in the USA colors of red, white and blue,” he explained.

Gillaspie often finds used boats by word of mouth. “Most people think they’re pretty beat up and no longer usable, but I take a look at them, and I see a treasure just waiting for some attention to return to the water. I can envision what they’re going to look like before the restoration is finished.”

Gillaspie said the decision to own all of the boats was so they didn’t have to rely on others to get enough boats lined up to go on fishing trips. He also has two 12 and 15-passenger mobility buses to transport veterans to lakes. Last year Veterans on the Water provided a half dozen fishing trips to various lakes around the state.

This year Veterans on the Water has an ambitious schedule of guided outings for groups going to Lake Minnetonka, Lake Waconia, Lake Washington, High Island Lake, Lake Hanska, Gull Lake, Eagle Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, Cedar Lake and more to be determined. There also will be some additional unscheduled trips of one to three veterans in a boat.

Veterans on the Water usually starts their day at 6:30 a.m. from a designated location and ends around 4 p.m. While most are day trips the exceptions are Gull Lake and Winnibigoshish where the group stays two nights in cabins. They even took a fishing trip to Alabama last year and caught some big crappies. As of yet, Gillaspie hasn’t considered winter ice fishing trips.

Gillaspie said boat safety is important, and they are captained by volunteers, but an official boater safety course is required of all operators.

“As with any organization, we need more volunteers,” he said. “Volunteers who can operate the boats or help me in the restoration process, such as sanding, painting, assembly, replacing wood floors, installing carpet, wiring of boats and trailers, cooking lunches for veterans, cleaning boats after fishing and preparing the boat for the next trip and so on,” Gillaspie stated.

A Veterans on the Water pontoon boat took several veterans on a successful outing on Lake Waconia last year. Telling stories, laughing and catching many fish was the agenda for the day. Veterans on the pontoon included Ed Bleck, Wilber Dorweiler, Delroy Kurtzweg, Waldo Reesen, Bill Lee, Wilbert Hahn and boat captain Allen Schaeffer, of Farmington.

“Donations of good fishing equipment, boats, motors, trolling motors, anchors, tackle, life jackets, fish finders, new seats, lights, wire for trailers, spare tires and gas tanks would also greatly be appreciated by the veterans,” he noted. Monies for a handicap bus, boat repair, bait, boat building, supplies and to pay insurance costs are also needed.

Gillaspie, who always has been a fisherman traveling to places like the tundra up north or to oceans and even to Spain, says he’s sincere about his Veterans on the Water project. From the start he has solely funded the endeavor with thousands of his own dollars.

“But now it’s time to ask for some help with more donations to cover expenses in order to continue with what I’ve started,” he explained. “I have no plans to take a wage from this program. I spend about 30 hours a week putting trips together and have loved every minute of it.”

While all the logistics and handling of boats takes a lot of time, Gillaspie saud he’s not complaining. “I’m having a blast doing this, and my wife Jean is 100 percent behind me on this too.”

He said Jean is very supportive and helps him when needed. “She does all the packing of the lunches she makes for the veterans going out on trips. I’m always being asked by the vets to be sure Jean’s sandwiches are going along for the day,” Gillaspie commented.

“So many of our veterans today have special needs, and we make sure we accommodate those needs,” he added. “We have a pontoon with wheelchair access and we’ll soon be working with a manufacturer based in Texas to create a trigger mechanism to catch fish by blowing air into a tube so that quadriplegics can enjoy themselves too.”

Gillaspie said he’s noticed a communications gap between age groups in a lot of vets organizations but said Veterans on the Water is designed to include everyone instead of leaving others feeling left out. “I started this so all vets could get out fishing at no cost. We’re like a big family and the only group I know of with their own fleet of boats,” he said.

Even though it’s been nearly 50 years since he returned home from Vietnam, Gillaspie said he still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“By providing these fishing trips for veterans you can interact with other vets who might be experiencing some PTSD issues too,” he explained. “By sharing a passion for fishing it becomes a therapeutic outlet. I’ve received so much positive feedback from those who’ve gone on our fishing trips which makes all the work more gratifying and an honor to do for them,” he said.

“I’m here to tell you that no veteran is a burden to us, and once you get the older veterans back in a boat or pontoon, it’s game on,” Gillaspie laughed. “We want to assist all veterans who face challenges and become a part of their healing process.”

Several veterans went on a no cost fishing trip last year through the efforts of Steve Gillaspie, of Arlington, who started Veterans on the Water. Gillaspie (white beard) restored this pontoon along with his assistant Dakota Reihler. Contributed photo

He said it brings joy to his heart when watching the young and old veterans telling stories, laughing and having fun while enjoying the experience of fishing in a setting that’s comfortable for them. “My oldest fisherman is a 93-year-old WW II veteran. He had so much fun. He’d never caught a walleye in his life before going fishing with us,” Gillaspie recalled.

“I’m a veteran and I appreciate it when someone says thanks to me for serving,” he added. “So this is my way of giving something back and thanking a fellow veteran who’s given so much for his country,” Gillaspie concluded. He said any monies donated would greatly be appreciated by the veterans to continue going fishing at no cost.

A fundraiser will be held on June 11 from 11a.m. – 2:30 p.m. at the Sibley County Fairgrounds in Arlington. Dick Jonckowski, recently retired announcer for the Minnesota Gophers, will MC the event. A silent auction and raffle will also be held and soldiers in uniform honored with a special tribute to WW II veterans.

For more information about the nonprofit organization, readers should go to the website: If you know a veteran who would like to participate and reserve a spot to go fishing, contact Gillaspie at 651-353-5050 or write Veterans on the Water, 211 W. Main St., Box 404, Arlington, MN 55307 for additional details.

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