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The Gift of Healing for Female Wounded Warriors

Facing burdens and finding balance through the magic of offshore sport fishing

August 11, 2021
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Four women fishing in the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
A day-ending quadruple sailfish hookup for the veterans fishing on Clean Sweep. Pepper Ailor

Those who fish are well-acquainted with the rhythm of battle: Gently lift up the rod, reel down. Lift, reel, lift, reel. It’s a motion as measured and natural as the rolling swells of the Pacific Ocean.

This up-and-down, give-and-take exists in most other efforts in our lives too: business, conversation, music, romance. So why do we always seem to resist the resting and feel as though we have to fight so hard for our trophies? The fear of missing the reward, perhaps? Humans are impatient, no doubt, and we sometimes neglect the balance, but if fishing teaches us anything, it’s that the action is hardly ever nonstop, and scattered showers of euphoria are intermingled with long periods of waiting and, sometimes, loss.

Family and Friends, Old and New

Sharon Miller is no stranger to the highs and lows of sport fishing. She knows that on the water, patience truly is a virtue. “It’s all about timing and balance,” she says. “If you try to fight the whole time, you’ll most likely end up with nothing to show for it besides a broken line, a waste of time, and a lot of disappointment.”

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Two women fishing in the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
Army veteran Valarie Clark fights a sailfish with some expert coaching from Clean Sweep owner Sharon Miller. Pepper Ailor

Sharon and her husband, Charles, are the owners of Clean Sweep, a 77-foot Bayliss in Los Sueños, Costa Rica. She and Charles built Hull No. 18 with John Bayliss to accommodate their travel needs and the particulars of their favorite recreation. “Life’s too short to own an ugly boat,” Sharon says with a laugh. And she should know. This is their second Bayliss, the first being Hull No. 8. “Clean Sweep is practical in every way, but it is also a work of art, surpassed only by the beauty and magnificence of God’s ­creation that the boat enables us to enjoy.”

The crew is just as polished as the ­vessel, and the Millers say they are like family. “Few boat owners have been as fortunate as Charles and I have been to have a crew that has been with us for as long as they have,” Sharon says. Their skipper, Capt. Gerry Keene from Port Aransas, Texas, has been with them for more than 20 years; Jorge Carillo has fished with them for 12-plus years; and crewmember Nelson “Toto” Castrillo is going on four.

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Sharon, Charles and their daughter, Mallory, had the opportunity to share some time aboard Clean Sweep with four female combat veterans—Valarie Clark, Stephanie Vazquez, Mea Peterson and Laly Cholak—who were participants in Freedom Alliance’s Offshore Experience.

A large Pacific sailfish leaping from the water.
One of many Pacific sailfish released over the two-day trip. Pepper Ailor

Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on combat-veteran rehabilitation, created the Offshore Experience, which pairs service members with donors who provide lodging, meals and other perks—among them, two days of offshore fishing. Most important, the Offshore Experience program includes inner work and healing as well as outdoor adventure, and the Miller family stood in as civilians who care. “They contributed greatly to the group-therapy sessions to offer their gratitude as well as support in carrying the burdens of war,” explains Pepper Ailor, the Freedom Alliance staff member who heads up the Offshore Experience. This aspect of the program is based on the life work of Dr. Edward Tick, a psychotherapist and author of several books on veteran trauma, including Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War. Ailor collaborated with Tick to incorporate transformational therapy with the beauty of Los Sueños and the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica as its backdrop. “This was our first all-women group,” Ailor says, “and some really ­special things happened—much of that is thanks to Sharon and Charles.”

The Healing Begins

As soon as Sharon heard about the Offshore Experience, she wanted to be involved. “To me, it was a perfect way to do more than say thank you to our veterans for their service,” she says. Always looking for opportunities to express her gratitude, this seemed to be a tangible way to do that while sharing the very thing she loves most: offshore fishing. “To be able to take veterans fishing offshore who had never caught a billfish? That’s just irresistible.”

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The Miller’s condominium at Los Sueños served as the headquarters for this Offshore Experience, as well as lodging for one of the veterans. “The setting in Costa Rica immediately nurtures peace and comfort,” Sharon says. “It offers an escape—if you need that—and a desire to be present, to soak it all in.”

Two women fishing in the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
Stephanie Vazquez takes her turn at a sailfish with Sharon at her side. Pepper Ailor

One of the unique features of the Offshore Experience is the personal connection between the donors and veterans. “For a lot of charities for military vets, there is no interaction between the donors and the people benefiting from their generosity,” Ailor says. “You write a check, get a tax deduction, and feel good about yourself, which is fine. But in the Offshore Experience, the donor can choose to be a part of the action if they want to. You can, like the Millers, break bread with the veterans, fish with them, hold space with them, and hear their stories. Supporters may write personal thank-you letters, which the veterans receive during an emotional support session, and is typically held on the beach at Isla Tortuga.”

To participate as a civilian in the Offshore Experience, you get to serve the veterans and honor their service. “It’s actually part of the therapeutic portion of the program,” Ailor continues. “It’s important that wounded warriors hear from civilians personally and know that they really care. They need us to listen to their war stories without judgment. It’s for us, after all, that they sacrificed. They want to know that it wasn’t in vain.”

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So Sharon, Charles and Mallory got acquainted with the veterans over meals and learned of their war experiences during the talk sessions. Clark was an Army medic who deployed to Afghanistan. Vazquez, who served in the Army for nine years, also deployed to Afghanistan twice. Both served in Female Engagement Teams, which allowed American female military personnel to interact with Afghan women. Peterson, a National Guard veteran, served as an intelligence analyst, and was wounded by shrapnel in a rocket attack while in Iraq. Cholak was also in the National Guard and was deployed to Iraq as well.

A group of seven women sitting on the transom of a boat.
Sharon and Charles Miller hold the US flag behind Mea Peterson, Valarie Clark, Mallory Miller, Laly Cholak and Stephanie Vazquez. Pepper Ailor

Vazquez remembers most from those discussions with the Millers something Sharon told her: “No matter what we do—good or bad, happy or sad—it affects everyone around us, close or far away. People who truly care for us will feel our joy and our pain with us,” Vazquez remembers.

Vazquez says that meeting the Millers and the other veterans and donors gave her what she needed to begin to heal. “We laughed, cried, hugged and started healing, but most of all, we left with lifelong friends who understand us—something we didn’t have when we arrived. At least I know I didn’t,” she says. The group sessions were deep; they were memorable; they were restorative. But on the Millers’ boat—that’s where the magic happened. There, the rhythm of fishing became a metaphor for healing.

The Action Heats Up

One memory that moved Sharon deeply was seeing the women sleeping on the bridge of the boat during the ride out first thing in the morning. Such a tranquil scene but an impactful one, especially for combat veterans, who often suffer from sleeplessness. Ailor confirmed: “Many soldiers struggle with insomnia when they return home. Sleep is plagued by nightmares and frequent waking with racing pulse and shortness of breath, forgetting that they’re not on the war front but at home in bed. We often see that our veterans experience the best sleep of their lives on the way to the fishing grounds.”

The ladies soon succumbed to the hum of the engines and the gentle motion of the waves. As they lay sleeping in the sun-warmed breeze, Sharon was suddenly aware of what a gift this was: “To sleep without angst or fear that something horrible might happen, it was beautiful. Deep slumber for these weary soldiers… I become emotional just thinking about that,” she says.

When they awoke, the adventure began. Keene had gotten word of a good bite happening about 70 miles west of the marina. Travel time would be longer than usual, but the Millers and the Clean Sweep crew rolled the dice that it would be worth it.

One woman fishing in the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
Cholak says that the balance of fighting a fish is similar to life: knowing when to reel and when to rest. Pepper Ailor

Clark had been talking that morning about catching a mahi as Ailor tried to temper her expectations. Not everybody catches a mahi, he said. It would most likely be sailfish and maybe tuna, but this was a bucket-list fish for Clark since her late husband had dreamed about it before he passed away. She was certain she was going to catch one for him.

Sure enough, the first bite was a mahi, and a big one at that. Sharon coached Clark through the process, showing her how to pull up the rod with her left hand and then reel down with her right, but the fish pulled the hook just out of gaff range. Everyone on board felt the anticlimactic finale and Clark’s dismay, but like a good soldier and teammate, she rebounded quickly to cheer on Vazquez as she released the first sailfish of the day.

Those first few sailfish were ­thrilling. But later, when the women clustered together for a group photo, a spot of blood on her shoe triggered Vazquez. After losing a leg in combat, she’s developed an aversion to blood. Seeing a faraway look on her face, Ailor asked if she was OK—she didn’t answer but collapsed in his arms. Much to the alarm of all those on deck, she had blacked out for a tense minute. After coming to, though, Vazquez recovered quickly. A few minutes later, she was standing at the transom, hooked up to yet another sailfish. Sharon was in awe. “She was strong and tenacious and determined,” she marvels. “Just 10 minutes after she had been unconscious, she’s fighting a sail. Unbelievable!”

Altogether the team released 11 on their first day offshore. Upon their return to Herradura Bay, the four veterans slipped into the water, as per ­tradition when catching your first ­billfish— a ­near-perfect end to the day.

The next day was one of redemption as Clark triumphantly hooked another mahi, this one even bigger than the first. This was the reward of the wait, just as Sharon had promised. Each of the women must have taken Sharon’s expert teaching to heart because they successfully landed sailfish throughout the day, tallying 18, plus two nice mahis. In one miracle moment, they experienced a quad hookup—all four warriors releasing their fish. As Ailor captured the scene with his camera from the bridge, Sharon called it a gift: “To see these women, all with similar challenges from their military deployments, bonding as a group and successfully getting all those fish to the boat, it was magical. They felt it. We all felt it. The energy was palpable. The memory is as fresh a picture in my head right now as if it had just happened—and it will be forever.”

What Sharon doesn’t say is that she never left any of them to fight alone. She was always there, gently coaching them to pull up and reel down. Rest, don’t resist.

Cholak says: “If ever anything ­resonated with my soul, it was just that. In life, just like in fishing, we will need to learn when to reel—work hard—and when to rest—to give ourselves grace.”

Two women holding up a United States Army flag.
The ladies proudly display a US Army flag on the way in. Pepper Ailor

Finding Balance

This is where the fishing intersects with the healing. It really is all about balance: letting things come and letting things go. Lots of waiting interspersed with short bursts of struggle. Cholak expresses it like this: “War provided me with many gifts and taught me that I could survive the worst of times and the best of times. I learned to experience joy and sorrow simultaneously. Unfortunately, some of those gifts that helped me survive in war cannot accompany me to the next phase of life. What a beautiful emotion it was to set some of these gifts free.”

Sharon likened it to butterflies ­emerging from protective cocoons: “I have seen burdens lifted from shoulders that could hardly carry the weight. I have felt the true energy beaming through a genuine smile that had been withheld for some time before. These women were strong, they were courageous, and they were vulnerable during this experience. It was clear that the tears they shed were carrying the pain of many ­memories, and shedding those tears enabled them to share, process and lift some of the ­burdens they had carried for so long.”

When asked how she envisions the future for the women who fished with her, Sharon is adamant. “My hope and prayer for them is that they continue to work on their healing and progress in living a life with balance, in which memories of the past don’t govern their lives in the present,” she says.

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And while the struggle might belong to each individual, as with rod and reel, they do not face it alone. And that’s the most important thing, Ailor says. They know they always have someone to lean on for support.

Certainly, the Millers are cheering them on, reminding them to take breaks and to give themselves some slack. “I truly believe that Freedom Alliance is changing these vets’ lives for the better,” Sharon says. “They must be willing to take the first step toward healing. But once they take that first step, they will never again walk this path alone.

“My life was changed for the better after spending time with these women,” she continues. “I am more appreciative and considerate of others, I am filled with gratitude, and I hope that it won’t be long before I can experience another gathering with veterans again.”

This article was originally published in the August/September issue of Marlin.

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