Exiting the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, two Marines suffered the usual barrage of queries from the cab drivers swarming the arrivals area. “You need taxi? You need taxi?”
As they walked past, searching for their contact, another voice broke above the clamor: “You need a helicopter? You need a helicopter?” Still surveying the area, Ryan, one of the Marines, said, “Ha, that would be nice, but we’re meeting someone here.”
When he glanced at the aggressive new hawker, he laughed to see his Freedom Alliance host, Pepper Ailor, who he had met at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, some years prior.
Ryan served six years in the Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan twice. On his second deployment in 2012, he was conducting a dismounted patrol when a fellow squad member set off an IED, which was rigged to two others that subsequently exploded. Ryan’s legs were shredded with piercing shrapnel.
He was medevacked out of Afghanistan and ultimately to Walter Reed, where he spent several years in recovery and limb salvage before the eventual amputation of his left leg. When he finally left Walter Reed, it was to begin a new peaceful life in North Carolina with his wife, Melissa.
(Melissa would later write us upon Ryan’s return home: “He was so excited when he got back, it took us half an hour to get in the house because he was showing me pictures in the driveway!”)
Upon arriving in Costa Rica, Ryan introduced us to his fellow Marine Johnathan, who was with Ryan on that fateful day in 2012. John served a total of four years in the Marines. Dispatched twice to Afghanistan, he earned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat “V,” a distinguishing device for valor in combat.
Next to arrive were two Marine Scout Snipers, Jordan and Randan. They both served in the Battle of Sangin, a district of Afghanistan that was, prior to 2010, under British control. Politics in Great Britain led to some indifference about the occupation, which allowed the Taliban to gain a stronghold there, despite the presence of British troops. When the area was turned over to the U.S. Marines, the Corps leadership decided to clear the area of Taliban, who didn’t leave without a fight.
Sangin was a literal minefield and said to be the deadliest campaign of the war by both U.S. and British troops. This battle became known for its great casualties, and Randan and Jordan were there, serving as Scout Snipers with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
During combat, Randan was hit in the femur by machinegun fire. Jordan was one of the first on the scene, swiftly and safely removing his wounded comrade to a helicopter for medical evacuation. Jordan, who had also served in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007, finished the deployment, which is featured in the book One Million Steps by Bing West.
The two pairs of Marines fast became one group of friends on the long ride from the airport to their home base for the duration of the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience:
Los Sueños Resort and Marina, a world-class vacationland on the Pacific waters of central Costa Rica. This is where the magic happens. And although we don’t have a helicopter, we can offer plenty of boats and beaches, good food and good folks.
The Offshore Experience includes two days of adventure fishing.
On day one, the Marines strolled the moorings to a 56-foot Viking yacht named Done Deal, where owner Jed Silver stood ready to welcome his guests aboard. Jed consistently donates the use of his vessel to Freedom Alliance during our annual Costa Rica Heroes Vacation and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute to this program.
Captain Brady motored Done Deal out of Herradura Bay to the fishing grounds, and we quickly caught our first sailfish. The first led to two more sailfish—a double!—after that, with Jed inspiring the anglers with his bullhorn.
After spotting dolphin pods, the shipmates quickly changed the rigging to allow the men to catch tuna. And just like that, they hooked a yellowfin tuna fish and continued to do so until the ice box held eight. During the ride back to the marina, the mates prepared the fresh tuna, which the resort restaurant served us for dinner that night.
The following day, Captain Scotty Bob Jones received us aboard Huntress, a 70-foot Tribute, owned and donated to us by Darryl Schroeder of Houston.
Captain Scotty drove us about 27 miles out from the resort, where Randan caught the first sail. Soon after, another cut the surface. It took the bait, and two other lines pulled taut. We had a triple!
Within the first hour of fishing, each angler had caught a sail. After a short lull, a beautiful mahi-mahi, or “dorado” as they are called in Costa Rica, was hooked and Jordan reeled it in. The rest of the afternoon was slow, but the gang caught one more sailfish before heading back to the marina.
One night, Tony Carrizosa of Galati Yacht Sales, invited the Marines to his home for dinner, where he hired a private sushi chef to cater.
Freedom Alliance enjoys a long history with Tony, since the Galati team donated a fishing trip during one of our first Heroes Vacations in Panama City, Florida. He then introduced us to Gerald and Virginia Lindholm, whose steady involvement led to the inception of the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience.
Those who entered Tony’s home that night found him engaging, compassionate, and interested in their service history. The meaningful conversation lasted over two hours.
One of our goals with the Offshore Experience is to connect military service members to civilian donors. Dinners such as these provide opportunities for donors to not only personally thank veterans for their service, but to serve them in return with a meal and the offer of friendship. It’s just one of the ways that sets our program apart from others.
On another day, the Marines were treated to a tour of Isla Tortuga, courtesy of Costa Cat Cruises owner Captain Jimmy Kitchell. A 55-foot catamaran (which can hold about 60 passengers) ushered us across the gulf of Nicoya to a lush, white-sand island surrounded by azure waters.
Freedom Alliance uses the Isla Tortuga as our “sacred space,” where we delve into restorative talks on warriorhood. This is another element of the Offshore Experience that makes it more about healing than recreation. . . .
Although, there is plenty of the latter, as well. No cruise to Tortuga is complete without a ride on the banana boat—a yellow tube pulled by a jet ski, which always eventually slings all its riders off.
For their final evening, the Marines dined at the top of the world . . . or so it seemed from the back patio of Casa Columbo, a 27,000-square-foot mansion built on the top of the mountain overlooking Los Sueños.
Our host was David Shinn, long-time friend of the Lindholms (mentioned earlier) and caretaker of the Casa Columbo estate. David served in the Navy Submarine force for a stint before traveling the world as a captain. The servicemen were enrapt as they chatted with the captain, while watching the last sunset paint the Costa Rican valley gold.
As the men departed the next day, brimming with new memories, friendships, and ideas about their war experience, another group of four veterans was making its way to San Jose for their first Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience . . . but that is another story.