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War Heroes on Water Honors Veterans

Participation grows in the second-annual event

February 3, 2020
A collection of medallions from the War Heroes on Water Tournament
A collection of challenge coins from the War Heroes on Water Tournament. Courtesy Freedom Alliance / Pepper Ailor

“So, what’s the catch?” asked Army veteran Courtney Stecker, when his friend and fellow veteran Drew Hoffman invited him to attend a charitable fishing event in California. Like Stecker, most who receive invitations speculate about what they have to do in return for a “free” four-day fishing tournament.

What is the catch? Well, probably bluefin tuna. Or maybe even a swordfish if you’re lucky, as we like to say.

The War Heroes on Water ­tournament is a fishing competition designed to honor our military, envisioned by LoanDepot founder and CEO Anthony Hsieh. It debuted in 2018, bringing together members of the Southern California sport-fishing community to treat 27 veterans to several days of fishing, fun and celebration in recognition of their service.

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At the conclusion of the first event, Hsieh had already decided that the 2019 version would be even bigger and better. Joining forces once again with the nonprofit Freedom Alliance, Hsieh and his team upped the ante. This year, they invited 50 men from all over the country who had fought in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—from Air Force combat controllers who call down air strikes to grunt infantrymen who fight day in and day out against insurgents, enemy combatants and terrorists.

One example: Marcus Chischilly, one of the veterans who attended the 2018 event. A Marine with three deployments to Iraq, he lost his leg in an IED blast in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment. Chischilly signed up with WHOW this year as a tournament team leader, joining two Army veterans aboard Motivator, a 54-foot Pacifica owned by Mark Mitchell and captained by Tom Shanahan.

Watch: Check out this sailfish swimming in a residential canal in Naples, Florida.

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The WHOW tournament fleet consisted of 18 vessels of varying sizes, with legendary captains like Steve Lassley and Jim Kingsmill leading the charge. Hsieh’s own 144-foot Trinity, Bad Company, joined the fleet to kick off the tournament. LoanDepot’s Nicole Carrillo performed the national anthem as the Coast Guard color guard posted the national ensign.

Colby Durnin, owner of the 47-foot Pacifica Joint Venture said, “It’s important to show our vets that we love and care for them and, as a nation, that we support them as they face the challenges that can arise as they return from their tours of duty.”

On the final night, the participants and competitors gathered at the Tuna Club of Avalon for the awards presentation. But before the winners were announced, Freedom Alliance had a surprise for Hsieh.

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The challenge coin, in military tradition, is presented to a service member as a reward for excellence. Legend has it that the custom was born out of the Roman Empire, but for Americans, the challenge coin first appeared during World War I.

First, Freedom Alliance presented Hsieh with a coin display fashioned in the shape of a US flag, constructed from purpleheart wood—symbolizing the Purple Heart medal given to those who are wounded in defense of our country—and brass, representing the weapons. Then, one by one, the military service members involved in the tournament handed Hsieh a challenge coin representing their unit. Many also embraced him and expressed their thanks in an emotional show of appreciation.

Freedom Alliance’s veterans trips to Costa Rica allow these heroes to unwind and enjoy some terrific sport-fishing action.

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The team from Bullpen, captained by owner Dave DuBois, took first place overall in the tournament. Their special guest on board was Kaleb Weakley, a Marine sergeant who was shot twice while on deployment in Afghanistan. Weakley landed a bluefin tuna weighing just shy of 300 pounds, helping his team achieve the first-place spot and securing his lead as top angler.

In 2019, that award was renamed the Ron Ashimine Excellent Angler Award, in memory of Hsieh’s friend who was a founder of WHOW and a veteran of the Vietnam War. “War Heroes on Water changes lives,” Hsieh said. “It certainly has changed mine.” He went on to recognize the veterans, event supporters, yacht owners and Freedom Alliance.

“This magnificent combination of American patriots is what makes War Heroes on Water such an amazing success.” Bigger and better things lie ahead for 2020 as well.

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