Green Season Success

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

As Costa Rica ushered in the “green season”—when it rains frequently but the abundant foliage grows lush and verdant—four combat warriors made their way to Los Sueños Resort to participate in the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience.

Two Marines and two Army soldiers arrived late on Monday, greeted by John McLean, who treated them to the first dinner in their condo. John, a dedicated Freedom Alliance supporter, has welcomed every new group of vets to a meal upon their arrival since we restarted the program after the pandemic.

Marines Alhajie F. and Ronnie P. fought in Iraq in 2004—one of the bloodiest times during the Iraq War. Alhajie was reassigned from his original MOS to serve in a personal security detachment, and he moved all over the Sunni Triangle of Death. Ronnie fought in the historic Operation Phantom Fury, also known as the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Bill D. and Enrique S. served in the U.S. Army, but in different generations. Bill served in a Ranger battalion in the late 1980s and took part in the invasion of Panama in December 1989. During the invasion, Bill was wounded from gunfire and shrapnel in a fratricide incident, commonly referred to as “friendly fire.” The wounds resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee, forcing Bill to medically retire.

Enrique served six years, of which he spent three overseas in Korea, Germany, and Iraq. He, like Alhajie and Ronnie, was in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, after which he switched his MOS from infantry to mental health. Stationed at Landstuhl Air Base in Germany, Enrique served the combat wounded veterans dealing with mental health issues.

After their first night at Los Sueños, the men would embark on the Offshore Experience, which includes seven structured talks centered around warriorhood. But before diving into the healing work, we took a moment to admire the beautiful views of the resort from the condo donated by Brennan O’Donnell. Two of the veterans lodged in that unit, and two in a unit donated by Gerald and Virginia Lindholm. Surrounded by landscaped beauty and blue skies, we began the first of the sessions.

We broke up the day with a special treat: Pamela Harlow of Serenity Spa donated hour-long massages for all of our veterans at the beautiful boutique hotel Villa Caletas, which sits on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. While two of the men enjoyed their massages, the other two engaged in another of our sessions on warriorhood. Then they switched.

Joining us at Villa Caletas was longtime Freedom Alliance supporter Franz Henggeler of Maryland. Franz has participated in several of our Costa Rican events, hosted a rafting trip in Idaho and conducted a retreat in 2019 in Ireland. His mother is Irish and his father is American, and the family spends time in both countries. Thanks to Franz and his family’s generosity, we’ve been able to host multiple events for our military and they even donated several all-terrain wheelchairs to combat veterans who’ve lost limbs in the wars.

That evening, the men shared keepsakes from their military past, and the civilians gathered with them shared objects that symbolize their connection to the military. Alhajie brought a photo book from his deployment, a publication produced by the public affairs team that resembles a yearbook. As we flipped through it, we spotted a familiar face—Freedom Alliance founder Lt. Col. Oliver North! We had a good laugh and told stories about Ollie’s many “deployments” as a war correspondent.

Carmine Galati and Capt. Tony Carizosa have a long history with Freedom Alliance. Carmine generously donated fishing days in the mid-2000s for Freedom Alliance’s Heroes Vacations, and Tony was the captain of one of those boats. Tony told Gerald and Virginia Lindholm about our organization in 2012, and by 2013, we were conducting our first event in Costa Rica!

When Carmine was asked about donating another fishing day for this event, he read the bios of the combat veterans invited to attend and called Tony to say, “These guys did so much for us.” He immediately wrote to confirm the donation of their 66-foot Viking yacht, plus captain and crew.

On Wednesday morning, the men boarded the sportfishing yacht, greeted by Captain Tony and the deckhands. Earlier in March, this crew led Team Galati to become the 2020 and 2021 series champions of the Los Sueños Signature Triple Crown Tournament; we knew we were in good hands.

Only a few minutes after reaching the fishing grounds, Enrique caught our first sailfish. Next, we started reeling in the brilliantly colored dorado, or mahimahi. Bill caught a gigantic bull dorado that was just a head shorter than him.

After that, we spotted a pod of dolphins, which often indicates tuna. The crew took a helium balloon and tied a kite to it. This is a fishing technique that allows the angler to bounce a flying fish lure on the top of the water, using the kite as a pulley. When the angler swings his rod, the line jumps, causing the lure to rise. The action mimics a fleeing flying fish, and the tuna love to give chase. Cheers arose each time a tuna leapt out of the water to attack the lure.

The next day, the group boarded another Viking—a 60-foot sportfishing yacht aptly named War Party. Owner Paul Lokey of Florida has donated several times to Freedom Alliance, and his captain, Brandon Walton, never fails to give us an exciting day.

Our first catch came when a dorsal fin speedily attacked the squid chain teaser. “Marlin!” was shouted by the crew. The muscular beast (approximately 350 pounds) ate the pitch bait and was hooked!  Enrique was handed the rod for a long fight under the watchful eye of professional deckhand Garrett Penley.

Afterward, Ronnie reeled in a nice Pacific sailfish as the others cheered. Then, another blue marlin came crashing into the spread! With this, we lured more than fish, as our fishing spot suddenly grew crowded with other boats hooking up to sails and marlin around us.

Bill and Ronnie pulled in another couple sails. While in the area, another five marlin attempted the teaser chains as the men looked on, adrenaline running high. Unfortunately, they robbed us of our bait without being hooked.

Next, Captain Brandon took us to a dolphin pod he had spotted, and we hit some tunas. Alhajie caught a beautiful yellowfin that would be our dinner that night. It was a solid fishing day in Costa Rica.

The final full day of the Offshore Experience was spent on an island expedition, courtesy of Jim Kitchell, owner of Costa Cat Cruises. The tour consists of a catamaran ride out from Los Sueños Marina to the scenic Isla Tortuga, surrounded by blue waters. The men enjoyed snorkeling and hiking when they weren’t relaxing in the shade of palm trees.

For the final night, we hired local Chef Randy Diaz to prepare sushi from the fish we had caught that week.  With stomachs full, we held our final discussions and challenged the veterans to continue their journey on the warrior’s path.

Following the event, Alhajie wrote on Greatnonprofits.org, a site where constituents can give feedback about their experiences with charities:

“I don’t even know where to begin. Freedom Alliance has helped changed my perspective of life. They have been there for me since I met one of the program coordinators when I was still hospitalized in Bethesda (now Walter Reed).

“The organization introduced me to a new sport: deep sea fishing (something that I have never done in my life). It was an amazing experience, and it wasn’t only about the fishing, the luxury stay, or the delicious food. The sessions during the stay as well as the follow-up sessions are meaningful and help you understand your struggle. You make meaningful friendships and learn new ways to deal with your mental struggles than the traditional methods.

“I am so grateful and thankful for all this organization has done for me and other veterans, gold star families, and others!”

In addition to those mentioned above, we’d like to thank Los Sueños, for their continued dedication to our troops in hosting us at their restaurants, and Gato Gordo Golf Cart Rentals, for donating golf carts for this and EVERY event we’ve held at Los Sueños.

We couldn’t do this without those who contribute financially, and so a special thank you to: the late Foster Friess and Lynn Friess, for his large donation in December that was made possible because of Jamie Turner’s belief in our healing work; the Henggeler Moriarty Foundation, for their many contributions to Freedom Alliance and this program; Gerald and Virginia Lindholm, for their generous gift and steadfast support; Will Drost of the William T. and Ethel Lewis Burton Foundation; and the McKissick Foundation, for their generosity.

Reposted from www.faoffshore.com.

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