For those who visit Costa Rica—whether to see the mountains, beaches, or jungles—they are all certain to find one thing in particular: peace. It is said, “Beauty is food for the soul.” And all come away from Costa Rica fully sated.
In contrast are the battlegrounds of war. Jungles and deserts, cities and farms—no matter the setting, war is ugly. Those we serve at Freedom Alliance—our military—leave the combat zone with crippling soul trauma.
But we think there is something to the beauty that philosopher’s such as Plato spoke of. time and again, we see it infiltrate the chinks in the warrior’s armor, eventually seeping into the cracks of the heart and binding it back together.
In 2013, we had the good fortune to be invited to Costa Rica by a group of patriotic Americans, who wished to introduce our wounded service members to this special place.
What became an annual event gained momentum, and this year, thanks to solid support from many individuals at Los Sueños Resort & Marina, we have increased our activity there. The result is a program that guides small groups of veterans to the beauty of Costa Rica to partake in the adventure of sport fishing, as well as a structured series of activities and talks specially designed for the warrior to make peace with his/her wartime experience.
Thus, the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience was born. Last month, we hosted our sixth group.
First to arrive from Boston was Joe, a Special Operations Combat Medic who was assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, where he earned a Bronze Star Medal with “V,” a distinguishing device for valor in combat. Joe maneuvered through a minefield while under attack to save a soldier who had been wounded from a mine.
While in Costa Rica, Joe shared with us the displacement he’s felt since leaving the service. For veterans like Joe, spending time with other service members with similar war experience can restore that sense of purpose and belonging. He was soon to meet his three cohorts in the Offshore Experience.
Jeff and Travis flew in from California, and Drew from Cleveland. Jeff is a Marine who served eight years in the Corps, deploying to Iraq for the invasion and again in 2004 for Operation Phantom Fury, where he received a Purple Heart since wounded in an IED blast.
Travis served in the Army as a mechanic attached to elite Special Forces teams—an outstanding honor. He deployed three times to Afghanistan with 3rd Special Forces Group. Drew served in the National Guard and deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in 2008, a city that was retaken by ISIS after U.S. troops pulled out of the country in 2014 (and retaken by Iraqi forces augmented by US troops in 2016).
Since three of the veterans arrived at night, they were amazed to wake up and see what lay outside their windows and doors. The men lodged in 3,000-square-foot mountainside condos, donated by Gerald and Virginia Lindholm, overlooking the resort and harbor.
We ate breakfast at the Hook-Up Restaurant in Marina Village that boasts an open-air dining room with a breathtaking view of the marina, home to an abundance of sportfishing yachts.
Afterward, the group registered for a day of fishing with Reel Fly, one of the Maverick Retail Center’s custom charter boats. Owned and donated to us by Duke Austin of Texas, the Reel Fly is a 42-foot sport fisher captained by Steven Cambronero Fallas.
The excitement was palpable as the guys, unable to contain their enthusiasm, talked up the fishing that was to come. Jeff made the first catch, an acrobatic sailfish that gave us a good show. Then Drew and Joe both caught sailfish. Travis was next on the rod when a massive blue marlin took the bait.
As Travis fought hard, he grew too exhausted to continue, and he passed the rod to Jeff. In true military fashion, the gang agreed that all members should get the chance to reel in this monster fish. Joe took a turn, and Drew finally got the last bit of line in. When it reached the side of the boat, they determined the marlin to be a 400-pound blue!
Since all took part in the catch, all take credit for it too.
The day ended with Drew and a yellowfin tuna. Strapped into the fighting chair, Drew, who didn’t have much fishing experience, fought for 30 minutes before a 100-pound tuna was brought onboard. When he finally caught sight of the fat fish, he let out a war cry that released all the exhaustion and tension he’d endured during the battle. Those looking on cheered with him.
On our way back to Herradura Bay, Jeff asked if they could take a quick dip in the ocean. The captain turned off the boat, and Jeff jumped from the bridge, while Joe and Travis dove off the transom into the bath-like waters of the Pacific.
That evening, Captain John LaGrone and his wife Vanessa treated the men to dinner in their home. Vanessa cooked a traditional Costa Rican meal of rice and chicken with patacones (a plantain dish), while John kept the crew entertained with fishing stories.
(John is a bit of a local legend in Central America, as he’s one of the first captains to sport fish in the region.)
The men enjoyed the meal and new friendships. And before parting, John and Vanessa presented them with a taste of Costa Rica to take home: coffee and Luzano, Costa Rica’s “national sauce.”
That night a big storm rolled in, bringing high winds, heavy rains, lightning, and thunder. The next morning, leaves and branches littered the roadways, and you could see run-off from the land into the bay.
The sky was still thick with dark clouds as we walked through the marina to a boat aptly named War Party. War Party is owned by Paul Lokey of Florida, who graciously donated a day of fishing.
Captain Brandon Walton greeted the vets as they boarded the 60-foot Viking yacht. John LaGrone, who had treated us to the prior evening’s dinner, was also onboard to help crewmates Fico and Pablo.
We set out to sea, to where Captain Brandon had fished the day before, but the conditions were vastly changed. With four- to six-foot swells, we were lucky no one lost their breakfast.
Brandon’s intuition was right, though, and our first fish on was another blue marlin. Jeff reeled in the powerful fish, which entertained us by shooting out of the water as it came nearer the boat.
Later in the day, we drifted to a pod of dolphin, where we saw tuna feeding. John and the crew rigged up a kite and flying-fish lure, which bounces over the surface of the water to attract the tuna. Several times we’d see a tuna just miss the lure as it launched upward.
The hour was late, but Brandon was determined to catch us one last tuna. We all watched as a big yellowfin hit our lure as it shot about 10 feet into the air! Drew was up and ready to crank, having a bit of déjà vu from the day before as he reeled in another 100-pound tuna as the last fish of the day.
After we returned to the docks, we dropped off fresh mahi and tuna to Bambu, a restaurant in the Marina Village. The resort visionary and CEO, Mr. Bill Royster, supports our program by donating all our meals at the resort. After showering and changing, we returned to Bambu for a phenomenal sushi dinner.
After two days of fishing, we set aside time for deep conversation based on the teachings of Dr. Ed Tick, a psychotherapist who has worked with our military for 40 years. But this was no group therapy session in a sterilized medical building with fluorescent lights. We headed to Isla Tortuga for sun and sand and water.
Our benefactor that day was Captain Jimmy Kitchell, owner of Costa Cat Cruises, who operates an all-inclusive tour to the white sand beaches of Tortuga.
Snorkeling was our first activity. After lunch, we devoted the rest of the day to exploring the odyssey of warriorhood and the incomplete cycle our modern system offers—one that leaves our veterans with a broken sense of identity.
During the sessions, we discuss ways that the warrior may bear their identity and wounds of combat with honor. We lead them to carry the war in a new way—a new way for them, however, one that is borrowed from warrior cultures of the past. We shared laughter, grief, achievement, and despair within that short time and left the island feeling hopeful about the future.
For their last night in Costa Rica, we asked our friend Carol and her husband Jay to host a dinner at their home overlooking the resort. Carol and Jay are from New England and moved here when Los Sueños was first developed. Now their property overlooks a beautiful landscape that takes your breath away.
Carol served Costa Rican fare, while the veterans relived the past few days in stories and laughter. The cool evening and brilliant sunset made the ideal ending to a memorable and healing retreat in Costa Rica.