Marine Veterans Find Peace in Costa Rica



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

The Marines lean over the balcony rails of the condo. Heartbeats slow as respirations grow. Below them lays a landscape like none other. A tranquil cove encircled by palms and beaches, which give rise to hills and forests and mountains. Seaside villas descend to the shore like stair steps, and boats glide to the bay or queue up in a tidy marina, all under the colors of a tropical sunset.

No one who comes here can resist capturing this image on their smart phones. It’s the same act, same scene every time, which is why we make this summit outlook our first stop on the tour. For these veterans, who fought overseas and returned not in one piece, this balcony is their initiation into Pura Vida—the pure life. And what we hope will become a new way of life for these warriors.

“I came here expecting a fishing trip. But it was much more than that,” Jacob would say at the conclusion of the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience.

This humble sergeant possesses a heroic record of service. He served three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. During Operation Phantom Fury, Jacob saw his close friends killed in Fallujah. For this battle, he earned a commendation medal for valor and a Purple Heart for wounds received. Seven years later, he was injured again, losing a leg to an enemy’s explosive device.

In February, Jacob, now medically retired from the Marine Corps, made the journey to Costa Rica from his home in south Texas to join three comrades from Chicago, who also served in Iraq.

Richard, a machine gunner, served with James, a Scout Sniper. In 2004, they were both wounded in a blast that led to a partial amputation of Richard’s hand and peppered him with shrapnel. James recalls the agony of watching his friend leave the battle space bloodied, knowing he would not be coming back to fight another day. Indeed, the injuries forced Richard into early retirement, but James deployed again.

Mike joined the Marines as a warehouse clerk, but the Corps determines its own needs and reassigned Mike as a security gunner on a bomb technician squad. He deployed with James to the Sunni Triangle of Death.

For these four, as well as countless other combat veterans, the war continues at home. They sacrificed their comfort and safety to serve our country, but now they must endure nightmares, insomnia, negative thinking, survivor’s guilt, and hypervigilance, to name a few.

But the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience is designed to counter these symptoms of so-called “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). We combine an offshore fishing adventure with structured, therapeutic conversations, outlined by Dr. Ed Tick, the author of Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul after War. This two-part program is framed inside five days at the Los Sueños Resort and Marina in Costa Rica.

Since 1990, Freedom Alliance has earned its reputation for providing events, services, grants, and scholarships to military veterans and their families, as an expression of appreciation for their service from our generous donors. For over a decade, our outdoor recreational expeditions and once-in-a-lifetime vacations have been what sets us apart. Now, with the Offshore Experience, we want to take it one giant step further—we want to change veterans’ perspective on their post-war life.

This is how it goes down:

Good people donate to Freedom Alliance—financially and in other ways, as you will see—and we find the veterans who need what these donors can give. Take, for example, the fishing adventure our four Marines experienced.

Carmen Galati, of Galati Yacht Sales, and John Sercu, owner of the 55-foot Viking yacht Tag Team II and Army Ranger, treated the men to a day of offshore fishing. Captain Victor Julio and the crew provided a friendly and thrilling day on the water.

Jacob reeled in our first sailfish. “It was way bigger than me!” he exclaimed. Richard snagged a smaller yellowfin tuna, which was prepared as sashimi for lunch. By the time we docked back at the marina at sunset, a total of 28 sailfish had been caught.

The next day, we boarded Mjolnir, a 70-foot Viking yacht, owned by Jim Smith and captained by Dave Harris. With one day of fishing already under their belts and some tutelage from Dave and the mates, the Marines felt confident enough to hook the fish themselves. And they did! Over 25 bites and seven sailfish hooked.

Mike checked an activity off his bucket list: to swim in the ocean with no land in sight.

The next day, Jimmy Kitchell of Costa Cat Cruises donated his catamaran tour to the white sand beaches and palm tree groves of Tortuga Island. The Marines snorkeled and explored the island, but we also took advantage of this picturesque, peaceful setting to complete the discussions and exercises from therapist Edward Tick.

Having worked with veterans since the 1970s, Dr. Tick created this program of healthy inward reflection to enable the veteran to carry his or her “warriorhood” into this new phase of life—after war. The medical diagnosis of PTSD strips the meaning from their suffering, but by truthfully acknowledging the burdens of war, we as civilians can not only share those burdens, but allow the warrior to bear a new identify. One of honor, not broken—of open, not unspoken.

The beauty of the island was a balm to the soul. Although we talked of loss, grief, violence, and destruction, by the time the Costa Cat crew gathered us to return to Los Sueños, our spirits felt high and restored.

Each evening of the Offshore Experience, one of our supporters treated the Marines to a meal, expressing their gratitude for the veterans’ service. Captain John McLean hosted our guests one night at the resort’s Al Fresco cafe. Captain John LaGrone and his wife Vanessa opened their home to share authentic Costa Rican fare with the Marines. Bob and Judy Yanover served steak and Cuban cigars in their resort home. On the last night, we ate dinner in the condo donated by Gerald and Virginia Lindholm. Bob Schwegler catered the meal, and we all swapped stories from the previous four days.

Marine wildlife artist Steve Goione stopped by to give the Marines a special gift. Tag Team owner John Sercu had commissioned a painting of his boat, and Steve had a personalized print for each veteran to take home. It was a show-stopping memento of their first offshore fishing experience and a meaningful way to close our time at Los Sueños.

From the lodging, meals, and activities to the golf cart transportation (thank you, Gato Gordo and Gene and Patsy McNichols); custom Tunaskin Aquatic Apparel fishing attire; Costa Del Mar sunglasses, shirts, and hats; and letters from our civilian supporters—all the donations contributed to an unforgettable message for our veterans:

You survived untold horrors of war. You held your brothers as they died. You lost pieces of yourself in a foreign land. You fought with honor, despite the cost to your body, to your soul. You served for us. Now, it is our time to serve you. We are so happy you survived, but now we want you to thrive. We hope that this week of peace and reflection is the first big step on your way to healing and wholeness.

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