In 2019, Marine combat veteran Mike Walker attended the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience at Los Sueños Resort in Costa Rica. It was the beginning of a long, and at times painful, journey of the heart.
He found Freedom Alliance thanks to concerned friend who explained the program to Mike. Although he would normally oppose any agenda targeting PTSD—or combat-stress, as we refer to it—he could easily see a therapeutic vacation as an alternative he would enjoy.
Our program addresses the burdens of war and a homecoming model based on the lifework of psychotherapist and author Dr. Edward Tick. Although Mike didn’t use the opportunities in the program to unburden himself, the sessions exposed the traumatic experiences he had locked inside. Consequently, Freedom Alliance was able to pair Mike up with Dr. Tick for individual sessions afterward.
Mike invited Pepper, the Freedom Alliance staff member who runs the Offshore Experience, into each session for support. Dr. Tick also connected Mike with an elder warrior—a Vietnam veteran and fellow Marine who could be a role model for Mike as someone who had experienced great moral wounding and is now at peace. Pepper felt honored to witness and walk with Mike as he transformed suffering into wisdom and took hold of his warriorhood.
And so, the stoic Marine, who in 2019 refused to open up in a small circle of other veterans, was invited to co-lead an Offshore Experience with Pepper in April. His friend Josh, who had alerted Freedom Alliance to Mike’s situation, was invited as a representative of a compassionate civilian. Josh has a unique connection to the military world, having served on ski patrol and as a wildland fire fighter.
Freedom Alliance brought six other combat veterans for the experience. They traveled from different corners of the United States: Virginia, Oregon, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. We had two Marines (including Mike), three infantry soldiers, an Apache helicopter pilot, and an Air Force pararescue (PJ). Their deployments were numerous, and several had physical wounds from war in addition to the invisible burdens of combat.
Upon their arrival at the resort, our supporter John McLean treated them to a dinner at Al Fresco’s restaurant at the resort’s beach club. John welcomed them to Costa Rica and said what an honor it was to be the first to greet them to this special program.
The next day consisted of group chats and exercises that build the framework of concepts to be discussed throughout the week—mainly that warriorhood is a lifelong journey and that the warrior identity is not something that goes away once a soldier receives discharge papers. We look at ancient writings and literature as evidence of how combat warriors throughout history dealt with many of the symptoms now grouped into the diagnosis of PTSD.
That night, our supporter Jim Kitchell invited the group up to his house that overlooks the Pacific Ocean for a dinner prepared by his wife, Melissa. Gathered around a bonfire, we discussed the mythological figure of Poseidon and how he relates to the modern warrior. (We use a lot of mythology in the therapeutic sessions, as it was a means for ancient people to make sense of their own lives through stories.)
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast courtesy of Los Sueños Resort, the group was split into two for a day offshore, enjoying the amazing fisheries of Costa Rica. One group boarded Miss AC, a 51-foot Ricky Scarborough sport-fishing yacht owned by Chris Perry of Virginia Beach. Mr. Perry had heard about our efforts at Los Sueños and graciously offered use of his yacht for our program. Captain Rob Mahoney greeted the crew as they boarded, promising a great day on the water. Indeed, they ended up catching 22 sails, a blue marlin, and two mahimahi!
We had another boat scheduled for that day, but as can happen with boats, there was an unexpected maintenance issue. Fortunately, we were rescued. The second group of veterans boarded Numero Uno, a 90-foot Donzi sport-fisher owned by the visionary and CEO of Los Sueños Resort and Marina, Bill Royster. Mr. Royster welcomed the men aboard, and his captain, Eduardo Lizano, steered us out to the fishing grounds. Each veteran on Numero Uno reeled in their first sailfish as Mr. Royster coached them through the basics. We headed in early and were able to catch another bit of Costa Rican wildlife behind the condo—capuchin monkeys!
That night, we headed off the resort to a local restaurant to meet with Andy Shapiro of New Jersey and cook some of that mahi caught on Miss AC. Andy has supported Freedom Alliance groups at Los Sueños for several years. But while we were enjoying his company over dinner, another guest in the restaurant took notice and stole the tab from him after the warriors left!
Andy posted on Facebook about the incident: “I am telling you this that there are still many patriotic people who support our troops and wounded heroes. It made me feel really great that there was another quiet supporter to the Freedom Alliance group.” Mr. Warren Gomes of California—thank you!
The next day, we had two more boats lined up to take the men offshore. Andy donated his 36-foot Jersey Cape, Clean Sweep, and hosted three of the vets. Chris and Laura Jessen of Sarasota, Florida, donated a day of fishing on Fish Tank, a 65-foot Hatteras. Their captain was out of town, so they asked Tony Carizosa to lend a hand.
Tony has a long history with Freedom Alliance, and he was a boat captain for one of our Heroes Vacations in Panama City Beach, Florida, about a decade ago. He was the one who suggested to Gerald and Virginia Lindholm that they seek out Freedom Alliance when they had the idea to host a Heroes Vacation at Los Sueños in 2013. Look how much has come from that bit of advice!
Both boats had an outstanding day of Costa Rica fishing, catching sailfish, mahimahi, yellowfin tuna, grouper, and a blue marlin.
The following day, we took a 45-minute cruise to Isla Tortuga, courtesy of Jim Kitchell and his Costa Cat Cruises. It was a beautiful day with blue skies that accented the cerulean blue of the water and green palm trees of the island. We always use this island day to dive deeper into conversations and exercises that address the significant gap in our society between civilians and those who defend them.
At their final dinner, we hired a sushi chef to prepare more of the fish that had been caught during their adventures at sea. We were thrilled to have Virginia Lindholm turn up to say hello to the troops and join us for a quick bite.
Following dinner, we jumped back into a final session about warriorhood, in which the troops were presented with gifts to remind them of their warrior identity. Mike’s contributions to this Offshore Experience were not small, as he supplemented each lesson with a personal, and often emotional, story from his time at war and how it related to our work.
Warriorhood is a journey, and all warriors are at different distances along that road—but like Mike, they now know that the destination of peace is within reach.