Excitement & Fear

Categories: Highlights, Offshore Experience, Support Our Troops Tags: ,

“The flight out there started with a mix of feelings: excitement and fear,” said Courtney S., one of four participants to attend the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience in June.

“The excitement was obvious,” he continued. “It was going to be the amazing trip, experience, event, and time away I expected. The fear component was the program aspect. It was the unknown of what we were going to do, what would I have to say, and what demons would I be forced to confront….

“But that fear was alleviated in the very first session we did. I instantly knew this program was not going to be like anything else I have ever encountered.”

We suspect that many of our program participants experience the same excitement and anxiety about the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience. We talk about war in a way that few events do…but we offer unlimited support during the process—as well as after. And it can’t hurt that we are fed by the beauty of Costa Rica while we do it.

Courtney is a combat veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq as an infantryman and Airborne Ranger. He was accompanied to the Offshore Experience in Costa Rica by his childhood friend and combat veteran Shane D., a Marine who served in Iraq twice—once during the infamous Battle of Fallujah in 2004.

Mike Nares, a combat veteran who served on three combat deployments, joined the group with a different perspective. Mike now works for Freedom Alliance, coordinating outdoor events, and attended as a participant in the Offshore Experience to get a feel for the deeper work in this program.

Lastly, we were joined by Seth Straw, who is serving an internship at Freedom Alliance as our “Scholarship Ambassador.” Freedom Alliance has awarded nearly $20 million in college scholarships to the children of military heroes killed or permanently disabled in war or training. This includes Seth, whose father, 1st Lt. Robert Straw, was tragically killed in a helicopter crash four months before Seth was born.

The addition of a gold star (the relative of a service member killed during wartime) son would bring another level of sacrifice to our discussions. It was an honor to host him.

The group arrived at Los Sueños Resort and Marina, located on the Central Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  The resort boasts beautiful villas and condominiums among meticulously landscaped tropical foliage and flora. Two couples donated their condos in one of the communities overlooking the resort and Herradua Bay, the site of one of the most sought-after marinas in the world.

Freedom Alliance Board Member Gerald Lindholm and his wife, Virginia, donated one condo and Charles and Sharon Miller of Texas donated another, which we used as the venue for our talk sessions—discussions centered around bearing and healing the wounds of war.

But the arrival night is just about getting to know each other. We dined at Al Fresco’s Restaurant at the Beach Club in Los Sueños, enjoying the outstanding cuisine found at each of the resort’s dining establishments. Los Sueños has graciously donated meals for all our groups, helping us host more events each year.

The next morning, we engaged in an activity that was somewhat off our normal script—a 2.5-hour hike in the mountains surrounding the resort, courtesy of the landowner, Mike Hardy. The rain during the night turned the dirt road into mud, but it was well worth the slog, and the men felt like they got a real taste of Costa Rica.

At the summit, a cool breeze refreshed us as we gazed over the miles of coastline visible from this vantage point. Next, we booked a treat for the men for literally walking the extra mile: hour-long massages at Nazareth Spa, located at a boutique hotel in the jungle.

Fully recovered from travel and the hike, we engaged in a lesson from our curriculum on warriorhood and how to carry the war experience. These discussions can be heavy, so we added a little extra time to soak in the infinity pool afterward, allowing the beautiful environment to soothe and restore.

On Wednesday, we joined Costa Cat Cruises for a daytrip to Isla Tortuga. The tour departs from Los Sueños on two catamarans for a 45-minute ride out to the island. Tortuga is exactly what you picture when dreaming about a tropical vacation. In fact, when we arrived, a crew was packing up their gear from filming a Corona® beer commercial! “Miles Away from Ordinary” indeed.

We thank the owner of Costa Cat Cruises, Jim Kitchell, for his dedicated support of our program. Jimmy has donated our spots for each group we’ve hosted since he started the business…even amid a pandemic that devastated the tourism industry in Costa Rica. We are ever so grateful.

That evening, we were invited to join David and Fayebeth Ball at a steakhouse in the neighboring town.  The Balls have supported our program in a variety of ways over the years, to include donations of their boat, their condo, and financial gifts. They jumped at the chance to host a dinner for our group.

Seth said, “Meeting with David and Fayebeth Ball gave me a chance to meet some of the people who help to make the Offshore Experience in Costa Rica possible. It also gave me some insight into the passion that these supporters have for helping veterans and how much it means to them to be able to actually meet these veterans, as well as the extensive support there is for the combat veterans in Costa Rica.”

On Thursday, we met at the Maverick Center at Los Sueños to check in for our day on Tiger Fly, a 42-foot charter boat donated by Will Drost of Louisiana. We were greeted at the dock by Captain Steven Cambronero Falls and two deckhands, Gabriel Ortega Contreras and David Cerdas.

There happened to be some action unusually close to the marina—only about 12 miles out—so we stopped to try our luck. Sure enough, Courtney reeled in our first catch, a big, energetic Pacific sailfish.

Next, Shane stepped up to reel in another large sailfish, and the excitement increased. Then Seth got a turn when we got another bite, and he reeled in a sail. Next, Mike caught a mahimahi, which we would enjoy later in the week. We caught another three sailfish before calling it a day and heading back.

On the trip home, Seth relaxed in the bow of the boat, thinking about his life:

“This trip to Costa Rica and my time spent on the Tiger Fly gave me an opportunity to just sit and reflect on how lucky I am. It’s allowed me to realize that, although my dad dying has come with its share of struggles, it has also opened up so many opportunities for me over the years.

“Being Freedom Alliance’s ambassador has allowed me to meet and help so many other students who share some of the same daily struggles, as well as combat veterans, Freedom Alliance supporters, and staff, who are so passionate about helping gold star students and families, and so many other incredible people.”

Supporters Wallis and Jessica Higginbotham hosted a dinner for the men at Tajo Cantina, a local spot in the forested mountains above Jaco, Costa Rica. Courtney said, “I loved going out to a sketchy (but wonderful) hilltop restaurant in the middle of nowhere.”

We had a few laughs as free-roaming chickens and cats visited our table. The food was great, and several of us ordered the local river shrimp, which resemble crawfish in the States. Jessica said, “Fantastic organization and really great group of men! We enjoyed getting to know everyone.”

For the final day, we headed to Vista Los Sueños Adventure Park, just minutes away from the resort.  The manager Billy Johnson has partnered with us since 2013 by providing deep discounts, and so we booked an ATV tour. Our guide took one look at the men and said, “I can tell you want to go fast.” And we did.

Riding ATVs is one thing, but riding ATVs through the jungle is quite the thrill. We spent over an hour coasting through trails, streams, and puddles and ended up at the base of steep hill. After a short walk up a creek and over a suspension bridge, the party was awed by the sight of a jungle waterfall with a clear pool at its base. The men jumped into the cool water, rinsing the mud splatters from their clothes, and came up refreshed.

The rest of the day was spent in our group sessions, finishing up the curriculum and preparing for the night’s culminating presentation. We broke for dinner and enjoyed sushi, prepared by a local chef in our condo, with Freedom Alliance supporter John McLean.

Hunger satisfied, we gathered once more for the final session—a memorable one that includes parting words and a parting gift. It was a meaningful farewell, appropriate for such a gathering of men, who have been touched in different ways by war.

“It’s an incredible program and one like nothing else out there,” Courtney said of the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience.

Reposted from www.faoffshore.com

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