Ballard pioneered the East Tennessee event in 2011 when he paired veterans and soldiers with volunteer boaters for a day of fun, free fishing.
The inaugural year sported 39 volunteer boaters and 37 soldiers who made the trip to Douglas Lake and helped kick off Fishing With a Solider. As pleased as he was with the success of the first year’s event, Ballard vowed to make 2012’s sequel bigger and better.
Fishing With a Soldier 2 brought in more than 55 volunteer fishing boats and around five dozen soldiers and veterans to Watts Bar Lake on April 28 for the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of planning and preparation.
“It was a huge, raging success. Not one thing went wrong all day long from start to finish,” stated Ballard.
When it was almost time to begin the day, there were about five boats that did not have a veteran. It seemed like an ill omen to start the day with.
Minutes before the official kickoff to the festivities a large white bus pulled into the parking lot. The side of the bus read “Fort Knox Kentucky,” and it carried 14 wounded warriors, who disembarked.
Not only were event coordinators able to fill up the remaining five boats. They also had to call several of the bigger boats back to the dock so they could put a second soldier on them.
With all the boats in the water and the fishing finally ready to commence the National Anthem began to drift over the lake through a loudspeaker, and what occurred next was a sight that moved Ballard to tears.
“I’m standing out there on the shore, and I’m looking at all those boats. Everyone of the people out on the water are standing up with either their hands on their hearts or saluting, not a hat on a head and not a boat motor going, and it was hard to explain just how moving that moment was,” he conveyed.
The icing on the cake came in the form of another Cleveland resident. Ballard was ecstatic that local hero and Wold War II veteran Laurel McFadden came out to participate. The 89-year-old Cleveland resident found a way to make the journey to Watts Bar and was a source of elation for the event’s coordinators.
“The greatest success for the whole day was getting to see Laurel. World War II vets are getting to be extremely rare. To have a surviving World War II vet get in contact with me and find his way to the lake was really something special,” expressed Ballard.
“When I introduced him, everyone in attendance stood up to give him a standing ovation. We made sure he had a blast.”
By the end of the day, everyone involved knew that there would be a Fishing with a Soldier 3 next year, most likely again in April.
In addition to their fleet of volunteer boaters, the community response that Ballard and his co-chairs received was above and beyond what anyone expected.
Prizes for the fishing tournament, food and drink for the participants and fishing licenses for all those involved were just a few of the many outreaches by area businesses and individuals to make the event an even greater success.
“For example, the director of parks and recreation in Kingston, Rick Ross, locked up the whole area starting midnight the night before so that we had all the room we needed. He made arrangements with the Kingston Police to help make sure we had an empty parking lot for our veterans and volunteers when they got there that morning,” Ballard explained.
“He had some guys come out the day before and make sure all the grass was cut and there were plenty of trash cans. The support was just outstanding.”
Altogether, gift cards and certificates from numerous businesses valued at more than $1,500 were donated as well as hundreds of other dollars in prizes and services for those in attendance.
It took a strong showing from within the Fishing With a Soldier coordinators as well.
Ballard had to rely heavily on seven co-chairs as personal tragedy struck and forced his attention away from the event that he had devoted so much of his time and energy toward.
Gary Harris, Steve Voland, Jerry Goodner, Deb McKay, Donnie Gill, Tim Voland and Mark Jenkins redoubled their efforts on the project as Ballard struggled with caring for his ailing wife and ultimately dealing with her passing.
“If I had had a million dollars to spend on a staff I couldn’t have gotten any better than these guys who just stepped up to the plate for free. They were absolutely outstanding. We never would have gotten off the ground without them,” Ballard stated.
And, in the end, the show went on. Fishing With a Soldier 2 was able to launch and ended up turning into something special.
Servicemen and servicewomen, stretching from World War II to active duty, came from as far away as Fort Campbell and Fort Knox, Kentucky, to right here in East Tennessee to be part of the event.
“That morning after the National Anthem played and everyone had blasted off, all I could think was ‘We did it. You told me to make sure I took care of these guys and we did,’” expressed a misty-eyed Ballard in reference to his wife, Betty, who had passed away shortly before the event.
With everything surrounding this year’s event it will be a tall order to create a Fishing With a Soldier 3 that can compare, but Ballard and his crew are up for the task and are already hard at work making sure that those who have served in the United States military receive something back for their sacrifice.
“Everything we have said, everything we’ve done and everything that went into Fishing with a Soldier is about our soldiers and veterans. We owe them so much,” Ballard expressed.
“It was awesome to see people come from all over East Tennessee spending a day saying thank you to these veterans and soldiers, and trying to give a little something back.”