Three warriors journeyed to Costa Rica in February to attend our latest Offshore Experience. (We were slated to host four, but Mother Nature interfered, and our soldier from Texas got caught in the unusual snowstorms. We have arranged for him to attend a future event in April.)
Chris, who lives in Florida, was the first to arrive. He served in the U.S. Army for three years as an indirect fire infantryman, which included two deployments to Afghanistan. D. J., a Marine Chief Warrant Officer, arrived with Ed, a retired Captain in the Army.
D. J. and Ed both served first as enlisted men, then as commissioned officers. D. J. deployed to Iraq in 2003 for the invasion and again in 2005–2006, when he was wounded by a mortar that led to his medical retirement in 2018. Ed served as an infantry officer and was wounded by several blasts throughout his four deployments, which led to a brain injury and combat stress.
We soon got them settled into their place of lodging for the week—a beautiful condo overlooking Los Sueños Resort and Herradura Bay, donated by Charles and Sharon Miller of Texas. Pepper Ailor, the Freedom Alliance staff member, lodged in the condo belonging to Freedom Alliance Board Chairman Gerald Lindholm and his wife, Virginia.
After a hearty breakfast in the morning at Dolce Vita, donated by Los Sueños Resort, we conducted our first seminar. This session outlines the lifework of Dr. Edward Tick, an acclaimed author and psychotherapist who helped us create a curriculum for the Offshore Experience.
We begin by reading the writings of warriors from ancient and recent history, which describe feelings that we would now diagnose as symptoms of PTSD. Then we ask, “If they experienced the same thing you are experiencing, how did they survive? Furthermore, what is missing in our society that existed for them that allows those combat veterans to feel whole again?”
At noon, we headed to a local restaurant to meet with Steve Hargett, who hosted lunch for the group. Steve is the president of the International Game Fish Tournament Observers (IGFTO), which provides billfish tournaments with certified observers who ensure the safe release of fish during the events.
Steve heard about the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience during the Los Sueños Signature Triple Crown billfish tournament and expressed a desire to help. A veteran himself, Steve shared his gratitude for the men sitting with him at the table as they enjoyed traditional Costa Rican fare.
Steve said, “Being able to provide any kind of positive experience to such deserving heroes means the world to me. Connecting, even in the smallest way, in a positive, healing, and uplifting environment, hopefully shows there are many people out there who want to help them overcome demons they may harbor. God bless all of them.”
Our first day of offshore fishing was donated by Mike Winget, who has supported Freedom Alliance since bringing his boat to Costa Rica a half dozen years ago. Mike had intended to be there, but circumstances prevented his travel. He generously allowed us to carry on without him, and his team on-board acted in his stead.
The crew provided the vets a special thrill, as they hit a tuna pod! The captain, Andres, even prepared some fresh “poke” (a Hawaiian dish made with raw tuna) for the ride back to the marina.
Mike wrote to us: “We (mostly me) were all worried about the outcome when I was unable to be there, but for sure, Bullwinkle’s ever-reliable crew stepped up (and proved me a non-essential, but proud, “papa”) and made our soldiers feel great. When you use words like incredible, kind, and professional, then I really know they hit the mark!”
That evening, another observer from the IGFTO hosted our guests to a meal. Simon Lemke, who lives part time in Costa Rica, made the trip to Los Sueños to honor these veterans, escorting them to Lanterna restaurant in the Marina Village. In addition to the fine dining menu and excellent cuisine, Simon engaged the warriors on a deeper level, showing genuine interest and concern for their war experience.
Simon said, “Being in the presence of three battle tested Warriors was a humbling experience. I think about our dinner often and the sacrifices they made. I now understand that being soldiers is not what they did but who they are.”
The next day, the men were back in the marina for another day of fishing. This time, we were on the 72-foot Viking yacht Goose, courtesy of Rick Stavola. The captain of Goose, Bob Watson, has participated in our efforts since 2013 and truly looks forward to the days when he can provide our troops with an adventure on the water.
Captain Bob certainly found the fish! We ended up releasing 10 sailfish, and Chris caught an epic 60-pound dorado (mahi mahi). Although Rick couldn’t join us, he and his son Alex arrived in Costa Rica the same day and met the men at the boat slip upon their return.
That evening, Freedom Alliance supporter Jim Smith sponsored a dinner. Although Jim wasn’t in town, he asked his captain, Dave Harris, to host the meal at a restaurant in the jungle, where they served “river shrimp” (which look like crawfish) and fried up the dorado we’d caught that day. Dave kept us entertained with tales of the sea and previous Freedom Alliance groups. Dave reflected, “What better way to give back to those who have served us than to share the adventure?”
The next morning, Jim Kitchell treated us to a private excursion on his new catamaran, the Costa Cat II. We cruised out of Herradura Bay and took a waterside tour of Jaco, the nearest town. Then we headed north to Punta Leona and beached at Playa Manta, a secluded beach, where we engaged in more group discussions about the burdens of war and how to carry them. Jim joined the discussion, representing a civilian who truly cares about our nation’s service members.
D. J. posted on Facebook: “This was awesome that words just can’t describe. They have a great recipe for healing by combining the beautiful scenery to the activities that make you feel alive again with the education to be a better warrior!”
We got back to the resort in time to catch a few monkeys playing in the jungle behind the condos. That night, we hired a sushi chef to prepare the tuna we had caught on Bullwinkle, and we all ate more than our fill.
The evening ended with a final discussion on warriorhood and a gift presentation.
The next morning, the men departed back to the States, changed and equipped to keep journeying on the warrior’s path. Ed called it “an absolute life-changing experience for me. I’m eternally grateful!”
After returning home, D. J. wrote us to say, “Freedom Alliance has been a blessing that has given me hope when I needed it the most.”
Ed shared a longer response several weeks after the program. He wrote:
“Amazing. Life-changing. Phenomenal program—Best short description I can muster. I thank my Savior Jesus Christ for this awesome experience (which there’s another story in itself of how this program came about for me). I believe undoubtedly His hand brought me to Los Sueños thru this program and the incredibly kind-hearted donors. I’m forever grateful for Freedom Alliance, Peppor Ailor, and for each and every person that made this happen—including the great and caring folks we met. This ‘vacation’ allowed us to open up with each other as combat veterans in an unconventional, yet very comfortable way. The environment significantly engendered a safe, relaxing place to unwind and release things we tend to compartmentalize. We shared experiences, how we learned to cope, and were introduced a unique and Biblical way to address our problems—something I never realized before, but was there all along, as well as other historic tribal methods of healing their warriors. ‘Life-long warrior’ mentality will remain a core principle of who I am, and this trip unveiled the importance of that concept to me and to ‘carry it forward’ as a mentor for others. Pura Vida!”
Chris wrote to us to say: “The Offshore Experience is truly life-changing on multiple levels. I’m learning about the warrior class through historic writings while having an amazing fishing opportunity. I can honestly say, this was the first time I found peace in a very long time.”
Many thanks to those who are supporting this program both with in-kind donations and financial support. We couldn’t do it without you. Special thanks to Foster and Lynn Friess and the William T. and Ethel Lewis Burton Foundation for their generous financial support.