Every April, Freedom Alliance and its band of patriotic supporters hosts a group of combat veterans for the ultimate vacation experience in Costa Rica. It is an annual event, now in its seventh year, we call the Freedom Alliance Heroes Vacation. This year, 17 combat veterans from all over the country were invited to enjoy a week of fun and adventure among a community of civilians devoted to spreading the message that their service and sacrifice is appreciated and not forgotten.
Among those who attended were Purple Heart Medal recipients, servicemen decorated for valor, and veterans who still battle the demons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our event is based at the Los Sueños Resort and Marina on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Los Sueños is the vision of Mr. Bill Royster, a California native, who turned a cattle ranch into a world-class luxury resort and bucket-list destination for fishing fanatics all over the world. Many resort homeowners donate their condos and golf carts, host dinners, and cover transportation costs for the Freedom Alliance week—to provide veterans an experience that involves celebration, relaxation, and adventure!
From the moment the veterans arrived, they were spoiled. A small fleet of golf carts, donated by Eric Landon of Gato Gordo, allowed the troops—many of whom suffer injuries—to move throughout the resort without issue. Freedom Alliance supporters, Gerald and Virginia Lindholm, who first invited us to Los Sueños in 2013, hosted a poolside dinner, where the men relaxed and got to know each other. Of course, this was no light fare: a dinner of beef tenderloins, jumbo shrimp, fresh fruit, and more is just what a soldier needs after a long day of travel.
In addition to a full stomach, the men received a packet of goodies that included gifts from Costa Del Mar—a shirt, a hat, and their latest styles of sunglasses with their multi-patented polarized lenses. Each veteran also received two custom Tunaskin Aquatic Apparel shirts and neck sleeves, featuring new and exclusive artwork by marine wildlife artist Steve Goione. The gifts are not only thoughtful, but they are ideal gear for the conditions we face while fishing in the equatorial sunshine.
The first morning of our Heroes Vacation, the men met for breakfast at The Hook-Up restaurant in the Marina Village. Chris, an Army veteran who served on three combat deployments, remarked, “That sunrise was like nothing I’ve seen before—it looked like a scene from a movie, and I could not believe that I had the opportunity to be at this place.”
After breakfast, the troops were treated to a boat tour of the Tarcoles River with Jose’s Crocodile River Tour. Jose Eduardo has donated this activity for us all seven years, and it’s truly a highlight for our participants. Not only do they get to enjoy viewing the Costa Rican wildlife landscapes from the river, but Jose keeps up a humorous narration for the entirety of the tour! This is no lazy river ride. It gets very serious fast when the first crocodile is spotted. There is a collective silence as “Jimmy Loco,” one of Jose’s staff, gets out of the boat with some raw chicken to hand-feed these dinosaurs!
Several of the men opted for the golf clinic, hosted by the PGA Director of Golf Jose Quesada, at La Iguana Golf Course. Jose has been donating a golf clinic to our cause each year since 2013, and he is an intuitive teacher.
“I have never been able to golf, let alone pay a PGA golfer to teach me, but Jose showed me how to easily understand the fundamentals of golf, and I was hitting 125 yards before we were done,” said Bobby. An Army veteran who was badly burned in 2006 when a suicide bomber detonated a propane truck, Bobby has come through a long rehabilitation. His scar tissue and skin grafts decrease his range of motion, but Jose was able to show him how to compensate for that on his golf swing.
Later in the day, our guests gathered at Vista Los Sueños Canopy Tour, a zip-line adventure through the mountainous jungle treetops. Billy Johnson, the marketing manager for the company, gives us a deep discount and looks forward to hosting our veterans each year. In fact, our group photos are on the same wall as their celebrity guests!
Dinner that evening was hosted at Al Fresco, courtesy of Mr. Royster and the resort. The restaurant is an open-air facility overlooking the exclusive Beach Club. Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Director Darrell Thomas oversaw the food preparations of Caesar salad, ceviche, sliders, two types of chicken wings, and pizza from their signature brick-oven.
Each veteran met individually with artist Steve Goione to receive a limited edition print signed by Steve. The artwork was donated by Jarrett Bay Boatworks of North Carolina, a boat builder that heard about our event and wanted to contribute.
Jim Kitchell, owner of Costa Cat Cruises, donated a group tour on his catamaran for the next day. The catamaran was built by Jim and his brother and operates out of the Los Sueños marina. The tour consists of a 45-minute ride from the resort, across the Gulf of Nicoya, to the white sands island of Tortuga. Mario Cubero, owner of the island, donates the space and activities for Freedom Alliance too.
The crew of the Costa Cat go above and beyond in serving their guests, from refilling drinks throughout the day to cooking a delicious traditional Costa Rican meal of chicken and rice. The veterans snorkeled, swam, rested, and rode the banana boat. Rob, a Marine who served on four combat deployments, said, “Tortuga Island was just breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and serene. The operators were so caring and took great pride in making sure we had the best experience possible.”
During our time at Tortuga, we invited Bob Redd, a Vietnam veteran, to speak to us about his experience of returning home from war and adjusting back into society. Bob is no victim and ran a successful business until his retirement. Bob wanted us to acknowledge that war changes us. He encouraged our group to be better than his generation and to not let 50 years slip by before accepting help and seeking healing.
After returning from the Costa Cat cruise, we gathered at the pool of Bob and Judy Yanover. Bob is quite the cigar aficionado and set out boxes of Monte Christo cigars for the veterans. Judy arranged an abundant spread of steak, twice-baked potatoes, jumbo shrimp, and bowls of fixings so no one leaves hungry. (Prior to our arrival, Judy bakes a variety of treats so each condo is stocked with fresh-baked breakfasts and desserts.)
David, a Marine veteran who served on two deployments to Iraq said, “By the time we get to the cigar party, everyone is relaxed and interacting with people we may have never met in our lives. But we enjoy each other’s company because, by this time, we’ve met one another and are enjoying this experience together. We like to tell stories about where we were and what we’ve done and realize how we all went through similar stories. This is also an opportunity for us to interact with the amazing contributors of Freedom Alliance and show our appreciation of the opportunity they have provided for us.”
The final two days of the Heroes Vacation was devoted to fishing. All week long, boats that were donating fishing days for us were flying Freedom Alliance flags while docked in a show of support. In fact, the veterans were so well received that many individuals in the community approach them throughout the week, including Pat Healey, owner of Viking Yachts; Carmine Galati of Galati Yacht Sales; and Sam Peters of Release Marine, among many others.
Javier, a retired sergeant major, traveled with his fellow veteran Roger from Savannah, Georgia. Both Roger and Javier served in the armor section of the Army, meaning they were part of a unit of tanks. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Roger was severely wounded by an Iraqi mortar round and was thought to be dead. He was first medevacked to Germany and then transported back to the United States for a long recovery period.
Also during the invasion, but with a different unit, Javier’s tank was hit by enemy fire and the ammunition in the tank exploded. The soldiers bailed out, but their gunner was trapped. At great risk to his safety, Javier crawled back to the tank as shells burst around him and saved the life of the gunner. In October of that year, Javier was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his brave actions.
Javier and Roger boarded Bullwinkle, a 65-foot Hatteras owned by California resident Mike Winget. Gerald Lindholm also rode along and said, “Fishing with a Silver Star recipient aboard the Bullwinkle was a true honor. Underneath the quiet, friendly demeanor I could sense the caring, compassionate person who risked his own life to save the lives of those he fought beside. Watching his determination as he fought a large yellowfin tuna and his aiding his fishing brother wherever he could, I truly saw what this American Hero was all about. It was wonderful watching him enjoy himself as he fished and relaxed on the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. A vacation well deserved.”
Javier said, “Never had so many people come together to honor what I did in my career.” He continued, “I can’t give enough thanks to Freedom Alliance and to all the donors. It was a humbling experience.”
Andre was recommended for this special event by a reconnaissance corpsman who attended last year. Andre was a Special Forces soldier who served 10 years with the Army National Guard. In Afghanistan in 2009, he stepped on a landmine placed by enemy forces that resulted in the amputation of his right leg. He spent two years at Walter Reed Medical Center recovering, but he was requalified to serve and became the first Guardsman to conduct an airborne operation with a prosthetic.
Andre joined two other veterans to fish on Bob Yanover’s 60-foot Bertram Prime Time. Andre said, “After a scenic and relaxing hour-plus ride out of Los Sueños, we reached the fishing ground. It wasn’t long before my relaxed state shifted to pure excitement as I hooked up to my first-ever sailfish and battled to bring it within sight of the boat.”
In all, eight boats donated fishing days for the Heroes Vacation. We want to thank each of the owners, as well as their captains and crews, for taking the time to honor our war fighters in this way:
Bullwinkle—65 Hatteras owned by Mike Winget
Clean Sweep—36 Jersey Cape owned by Andrew Shapiro
Done Deal—56 Viking owned by Jed Silver
Fish Tank—63 Hatteras owned by Chris and Laura Jessen
Fuujin—54 Viking owned by Ron Rule
High Hook—64 Weaver owned by Larry Allison
Mjolnir—70 Viking owned by Jim Smith
Prime Time—60 Bertram owned by Bob Yanover
The first fishing day concluded with a pool party hosted by the Lindholms. Captains and mates from some of the boat crews and other Freedom Alliance supporters were encouraged to attend. Costa Rican musicians Scott Ramirez and Alissa Alma provided live entertainment. Mr. Lindholm addressed the gathering, giving a message of thanks to the troops, and Ms. Alma sang “God Bless America” in a moving finale.
The second day of fishing was another success, followed by a farewell dinner, hosted by Los Sueños Resort and Marina at Al Fresco restaurant at the Beach Club. Anyone who had contributed to the event was invited to spend the last evening with the veterans and enjoy a fantastic spread of tuna, lasagna, ribs, and chicken.
Army veteran Bobby gave a special speech about what it means for someone like him to experience events like this. Freedom Alliance first helped Bobby’s family with an emergency grant when he was still in a coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Since then, he has attended several recreational events with Freedom Alliance and his son received a scholarship from Freedom Alliance.
After Bobby spoke, we played a video of footage from the week. Special thanks to Rich Christensen of RK Creative Productions for donating his time and talent to film this year’s event. Rich is an Emmy award-winning videographer, who has worked on reality-based television programs for ESPN, National Geographic, History Channel, Outdoor Channel, and others. It was quite the privilege to have him capture these memories.
David later summed it up for us: “This trip was so amazing, I got homesick when I was home because I missed everything and everyone from Costa Rica and Freedom Alliance.”
We’d also like to thank the following folks:
For financial contributions: The Henggeler Moriarty Family Foundation of Maryland, Gerald & Virginia Lindholm, Dick & Ginny Voell, Smyth McKissick, David Ball, Gene & Patsy McNichols, R. Thomas McLean, and Evan Hunter.
Los Sueños Resort & Marina for covering all the meals outside of the pool parties mentioned above.
For donating condos: Gerald & Virginia Lindholm, Mrs. Bacardi, Wes Brockoeft, Deb & Emil Kuzmann, Bob Schwegler, Nancy Smith, Jim & Luz Marina Stewart, and David Simon.
Gene McNichols for donating use of his golf carts.
Jed Silver for donating food and beverages for some of our pool parties.
Carmel & Tom Cowan for covering the bus transfers for the troops to travel from the airport to the resort and back again.
And the volunteers who help with lots of stuff: John McLean, Enid Valverde, Digna Campos, Eddie Chavez, Carol Angus, Johnny Bankston, and many others.