In late February, we wrapped up the first Offshore Experience of 2020, not knowing it would be the last in-person event for many months. The borders of Costa Rica closed in March and were not opened again to the United States until November. But early this month, we finally recommenced the important work of the Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience—a program designed for small groups of combat veterans to enjoy offshore fishing in Costa Rica while engaging in meaningful healing work and group sessions.
During the COVID season, our team quickly adapted to the world’s situation to support and give aid to our military, who endured the isolation and social distancing encouraged by government authorities. Isolation can be especially harmful to those dealing with the unseen wounds of war. Knowing this, Freedom Alliance hosted numerous virtual groups, as well as individual sessions, led by Dr. Edward Tick, a psychotherapist who has made his life’s work helping veterans.
Two Army vets, Chuck M. and Spike K., arrived a day early and were able to get in some sightseeing before the rest of the group arrived and our program began. They visited the Villa Caletas, a boutique hotel on a mountain ridge overlooking the ocean, where they enjoyed pineapple, honey, and ginger smoothies. That afternoon, three more participants arrived: Rob D., a Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician; Josh M., a Marine combat veteran and Director of Programs at Freedom Alliance; and Julia M., a Gold Star daughter, who is serving as the Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund Ambassador. Horizon Church in Jaco hosted a cookout dinner that evening to welcome them to the community, and Bobby V., a Marine veteran and the last warrior to arrive, rolled in around midnight from Arizona.
The program formally began the next morning with our first discussion. We explored warriorhood as seen throughout history, drawing the connection that, as combat veterans, they are the modern embodiment of the warrior archetype. Then the conversation turned to values and the warrior code—both in ancient culture and in today’s American military. The session built upon itself to establish that warriorhood is a lifelong journey, and we destigmatized the burdens of war that our veterans carry (which we now call PTSD).
We broke for lunch, and then the afternoon was split between two activities: a more in-depth session on the warrior code followed by massages in a jungle cabana. After dinner, we resumed the group session for one more talk about the role of mythology in the lives of ancient peoples and how we can still find meaning in the warrior’s role from these time-honored stories.
Putting aside the heavy talk for a while, it was time to hit the water. Mr. Wallis Higginbotham offered to host the group to two days of offshore fishing on his 60-foot Paul Mann sport fishing yacht, Grand Slam. The boat is captained by Dave Grubbs of New Smyrna, Florida, and boasts a team respected in many tournaments, including the Los Sueños Triple Crown Series.
The first day, as we were heading out to the fishing grounds, we ran into a pod of dolphin and tuna. It wasn’t two minutes after the lines were put in that we were reeling in the first yellowfin tuna. Everyone got a chance to reel in fish, as the tuna were plentiful. With all the activity on the boat, the veterans really came alive—joking, laughing, jibing, and ribbing. We were fortunate to release two sailfish in the midst of the tuna frenzy. Deckhand Frank diced some tuna up for fresh onboard sashimi. That evening, we took the remaining fresh-caught tuna to Lanterna restaurant in the Marina Village at Los Sueños, where the chef made a delicious meal of tuna steaks with rice and mixed vegetables.
The next morning, we returned to Grand Slam for a second treat. Unlike the first day, when we ran directly into a pod, we spent the morning searching for fish. As the lunch hour approached, Deckhand Jessey fired up the grill and served us steak! With the scent of seared beef in the air, we found the dolphin pods and their tuna companions. Once again, it was on! Bobby even reeled in a nice dorado, or mahi mahi, whose bright colors attracted the eye of everyone in the cockpit. Before heading back to shore, the troops asked to swim in the deep waters. It was a fantastic afternoon ride back to the marina, and the camaraderie was high. The extra tuna was donated to A REEL DIFFERENCE, a local charity that feeds the hungry in the area.
The next day, we were treated to a catamaran journey to Isla Tortuga, courtesy of Jimmy Kitchell, owner of Costa Cat Cruises. Kitchell has donated this special tour to every Freedom Alliance group since his business opened. The scenic island features white sands and azure waters, shaded by lush palm trees, and the Costa Cat staff works hard to maintain their top-rated hospitality. Despite the economic turndown in tourism, Jimmy donated once again to Freedom Alliance. We use the island’s primitive beauty to balance our discussion of the role of storytelling in warrior culture. Here, we give the vets an opportunity to unburden themselves in this safe, non-judgmental space. The day is always emotional but also healthy and cathartic.
That evening we hired a local sushi chef to transform the last of the tuna into mouthwatering creations. This was their last night in Costa Rica, and the final session concluded with a vow to observe the lifelong warrior path, which we celebrated with a meaningful gift. Over the week, the group made incredible memories and major strides in their inner healing and restoration. It was the perfect event on many levels and a great way to end 2020 in anticipation of more groups in the year to come.
In addition to the donors mentioned above, special thanks to Gerald & Virginia Lindholm and Bob & Alicia Hagadorn for donating lodging; Los Sueños Resort & Marina for donating several meals and Jimmy T’s for donating breakfast on Sunday; and Gato Gordo Golf Cart Rentals for donating golf carts to our troops for the week. We are extremeley grateful for the generosity of the William T. and Ethel Lewis Burton Foundation, the Henggeler Moriarty Foundation, and others who gave financially to the Offshore Experience.