Our very first Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience for veterans took place at the Los Sueños Resort & Marina in Costa Rica this December.
Our mission for this program is to combine offshore fishing in lush settings with rehabilitative conversation and support. We base the latter on the teachings of Dr. Edward Tick, who for the last 40 years has practiced holistic and psycho-spiritual therapy with veterans of war. Using Dr. Tick’s guidance, we created talk sessions that make the Offshore Experience a true adventure in healing.
We selected for this most-crucial inaugural event four veteran soldiers, who daily endure the emotional scars of their time in combat. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is wide-spread among military personnel, but only a few sufferers seek treatment or overcome it completely. PTSD may include symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as insomnia and nightmares, and even survivor’s guilt.
Steve and Zach, from the Los Angeles area, served in the military as Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, which means they diffused roadside bombs. Robert and Scotty deployed during the Gulf War in the 1990s, then left the service to rejoin about ten years ago. They met at their army retraining course and remain friends, despite living in Iowa and Kentucky, respectively.
One of the key elements of the Offshore Experience involves connecting our civilian donors to our military participants. This is a new concept for most non-profit organizations serving combat veterans.
On the first evening in Costa Rica, Gerald and Virginia Lindholm hosted a poolside dinner for the vets. Gerald is on the Freedom Alliance board of directors, and he and Virginia donate resort lodging and much more.
This pool overlooks the marina, and we were treated to a spectacular sunset. There, we introduced the topics that we would be exploring over the next few days: (1) the significance of war, (2) the warrior ethos, and (3) the division between the military and those they defend.
With that last point, the men shared their first meal with our warmhearted Freedom Alliance civilian supporters. This was a ritual we kept to each day.
Early the next morning, the Mjolnir awaited our arrival at the marina. Mjolnir is a 70-foot Viking yacht, whose name is the same as Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology. Its owner, Jim Smith, donated two full days of fishing with state-of-the-art navigational systems, sonar, and crew.
As Captain Dave Harris drove us out of the Herradura Bay, some of our guests couldn’t keep their eyes open to see the breathtaking coastal sunrise. Fortunately, the yacht is appointed with luxurious couches for such times. Something about the hum of the engines, the lapping of the waves, and the rocking of the boat makes for the best sleep a soldier can get without medication.
Freedom Alliance friends, Tunaskin Aquatic Apparel gave our guys performance long-sleeve shirts and neck gators, perfect for a day out on the water. The apparel featured art by renowned marine wildlife artist Steve Goione. Costa del Mar donated a pair of polarized sunglasses (valued at $280) for each of the four vets, along with a hat, lens cleaner, and glasses retainer cords.
Once out in the open water, Steve hooked a blue marlin, the first fish of the trip. Scotty caught a sizable mahi-mahi, and Zach and Robert both caught sailfish. And they all looked dapper doing it thanks to our retail donors!
Besides the fishing, we took advantage of other opportunities for recreation. The tour company Costa Cat treated the veterans to a catamaran voyage to Tortuga Island, where we spent a full day resting on the white-sand beach or hiking through the forested interior. On another day, the men played nine holes at the Marriott’s La Iguana Golf Course, courtesy of PGA director Jose Quesada.
As we mentioned before, our program features a series of structured discussions. Each day presented a new topic. For example, one day we talked about our society’s sterilization of war—how we have made war an everyday norm. We also used the book Rules for a Knight, by Ethan Hawke, to explore the values and integrity of a warrior.
Another important piece of our program included times of fellowship between the soldiers and the people who make this experience possible: our donors.
In addition to the Lindholms, Bob Schwegler of New Jersey, who regularly donates his condo for use by Freedom Alliance, brought a catered meal to share with our guests. Captain John LaGrone and his wife Vanessa treated them to a Costa Rican meal, along with the mahi-mahi caught that day on the yacht. Carol Angus and Jay Dorval live on the side of the mountain that overlooks the golf course and bay, and they also invited the men to dinner one evening.
We reminded the participants that closing the gap that exists between military veterans and civilians starts with such intimate gatherings. When reflecting on this later, Zach said, “I felt as though our visit really meant something to them.”
In this same spirit, Freedom Alliance supporters hand-wrote letters of thanks and encouragement that we delivered to the men during their stay.
Robert, who describes himself as being “withdrawn and very suspicious of outsiders” since his combat experience, was particularly touched by the gesture. “It shows those of us who feel forgotten that our sacrifices are appreciated and people really care about us,” he said.
What we aim to achieve with the Offshore Experience is a change in the hearts of our veterans, as well as the civilians who are funding it, providing lodging and meals, or writing letters. Since coming home and reading what Steve, Zach, Robert, and Scotty have written us, we think this first event was a grand hit.
Robert said he is smiling more than he has in three years. Scotty said, “I can’t say thank you enough for everything you provided for us. I’m sure my family agrees. They love to see me happy and rejuvenated.”
Zach opened up and touched us with his honesty and gratitude. He said, “For a veteran like me, who finds himself in a dark place on most days, this trip allowed me to leave all the stress of work and home life behind for a few days, and just focus on enjoying myself, meeting some new friends, and sharing one really amazing experience with some fellow vets and several very generous, patriotic Americans.”
We think Scotty summed it up best: “Freedom Alliance is helping veterans learn to live and thrive again.”