The Freedom Alliance Offshore Experience

Connecting combat veterans with offshore sport fishing

pelagic magic team standing on a boat deck
John McNally, owner of Pelagic Magic, Capt. Carl Schloderer and his brother Kurt, with four U.S. veterans in Los Sueños.Courtesy Freedom Alliance / Pepper Ailor

I had met a young man from California named Josh Shields during the second leg of the 2019 Los Sueños Signature Triple Crown in Costa Rica. His grandfather, Bill Royster, introduced us, and told Josh about Freedom Alliance and our work with America’s veterans. Shields revealed his familiarity with the military subculture, saying that an old roommate of his might be a good candidate for our program. “He fought in Fallujah,” he said with a grim recollection.

In late March 2004, Iraqi insurgents in the city of Fallujah ambushed four U.S. contractors. The world watched revolting video footage of those men being murdered, their bodies dragged through the city’s streets, set on fire, and strung from a bridge. It was the impetus for Operations Vigilant Resolve and Phantom Fury of that same year.

Vigilant Resolve, conducted in April 2004, came at the order of President George W. Bush and involved Marine and Army units pushing through the city to find and destroy the insurgent forces.

The agitators included not only Iraqi combatants but also hardened foreign fighters from Chechnya, Iran, Sudan and other countries. After a month of combat, the commander in the area, Lt. Gen. James Conway, announced that at the behest of the Iraqi government, operations would be handed over to a local Iraqi security force. By September of that year, insurgent forces had grown in Fallujah and the coalition forces launched a new campaign. A warning preluded the Second Battle of Fallujah, also called Operation Phantom Fury: Anyone who remained in the city after a certain date would be considered an enemy combatant. With barrier troops surrounding the city, Marine and Army units pushed from one end of Fallujah to the other, clearing each building room by room. It is remembered as one of the most historic events of the Iraq War.

We invited Shields’ former roommate and three of his fellow Marines to participate in our Offshore Experience program in May 2019 at Los Sueños. All four Marines had fought in Fallujah in 2004—two during the first battle and two during the second. One of our goals in this program is to help bridge the gap between our society and its defenders, and these guys met that need flawlessly.

On the first night of our Offshore Experience, after a long day of travel, the men sat poolside overlooking the Los Sueños resort, getting to know each other. The next morning, John McNally, owner of Pelagic Magic, welcomed the troops to two days of fishing on his vessel. Capt. Carl Schloderer, assisted by his brother Kurt, had the boat ready to fish and we set out of Herradura Bay. For the next two days we caught marlin, sailfish, tuna and dorado on flat-calm seas.

It was a memorable experience, and McNally wrote to the men at the end of the two days: “I appreciate your service to me, my family, and my country. I know if it weren’t for your dedication, your bravery, and your love for all of us, my life would be very different. It is all you brave men and women who make the difference in this world. Please know, from the bottom of my heart, you all are appreciated and loved.”

The next morning we boarded the Costa Cat Cruises catamaran to spend the day at Isla Tortuga, a beautiful white-sand island surrounded by peaceful blue waters and shaded by tall palm trees. Jim Kitchell, Costa Cat's captain and owner-operator of the outfit, donated the tour.

We used this day to relax, unwind, and enjoy the natural beauty of Costa Rica, purposefully reflecting on the contrast between this and what they experienced in war. We conducted therapeutic exercises and conversations that centered on the warrior’s journey, values and identity, as well as the civilian’s responsibility in sharing the burdens of war.

To learn more about this program, please visit faoffshore.com.