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For six years, Anthony Hsieh of Bad Company fame has produced a phenomenal fishing tournament to benefit those who have experienced the hardship of combat on behalf of our country. However, War Heroes on Water is much more than a fishing tournament—it’s a tangible gesture of appreciation from grateful Americans. It’s the heart behind the tournament that makes it noteworthy.
For their charitable partner, Hsieh chose Freedom Alliance, an organization founded in 1990 that honors and encourages military service through a wide variety of programs, including outdoor experiences and retreats to college scholarships for the children of those who have lost life or limb fighting our nation’s wars. The 2023 event hosted 100 veterans to participate on 40 yachts for a life-changing competition.
Some tournaments boast large checks for the winners, but the life-changing aspect that occurs at WHOW is not financial. It’s the restoration of camaraderie, the balm of brotherhood, combined with three days on the Pacific waters and supportive gatherings of citizens who display their pride in our military. It’s a recipe for positive impact and healing.
The tournament relies on sponsorships, donations and a silent auction to raise funds not only for the tournament festivities, but also to benefit Freedom Alliance’s year-round programs that honor those who served. More so, the tournament is made possible by the philanthropic owners of the participating yachts, who host the troops at no cost to the organization.
“We are incredibly blessed by the generosity that is shown here to our organization because it helps us to care not just for this amazing group of veterans with us here, but also for many more military families throughout the year,” says Freedom Alliance President Tom Kilgannon. “This event brings together an extraordinary group of people who are willing to give their talent and treasure to help an amazing group of Americans who have sacrificed so much.”
Each year, not only does tournament director Rod Halperin search the Southern California fishing community for those willing to donate three days of fishing to deserving military veterans, but he also looks for expert teams that have the best chance of putting the veterans on fish. Well-known and successful captains such as Jimmy Kingsmill, Dave Hansen and Charles Albright review their strategies with the likes of Steve Lassley and Mike “Beak” Hurt. And although the competitive spirit is high, the goal of everyone involved is to see that the veterans receive the message that after 20 years of the global war on terror, our people haven’t forgotten them.
The selected veterans include those with Purple Heart medals, given to military personnel who have been wounded by enemy action; those with multiple deployments; those in the Special Operations community; and those who have experienced traumatic deployments or participated in significant battles. Many of the veterans have been decorated for bravery in battle, including with Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and commendation medals with devices for valor. Freedom Alliance selects those who sacrificed greatly, suffered through combat and endured much to defend our nation.
One participating angler, a Marine infantryman who was peppered by shrapnel from an IED during his second deployment to Afghanistan, says, “I was absolutely humbled and amazed that there were so many people in Southern California who were willing to donate their time, money, and share their friendship with us veterans. It’s really hard already for guys like us to find other people to relate to, find time to unwind and relax, and also to de-stress and heal from the experiences we went through overseas.”
On the third day of the tournament, the boats gathered outside Avalon in the late afternoon for a flyover by World War II aircraft—a salute to the legacy of our warriors. Then they paraded into Avalon Harbor for a weigh-in at Catalina’s historic Green Pier. “We had a great tournament, the weather cooperated, and the fishing was pretty darn good, allowing our veterans to catch all kinds of species,” Halperin says.
Many of the teams caught bluefin tuna, which looked especially impressive during the weigh-in. “There’s nothing like bringing in a tuna that’s almost twice your body size,” Mea Peterson says. She fished on the 57-foot Bertram El Cazador and is also one of the female combat veterans who has participated in the past two years.
A total of 22 trophies were given during the concluding ceremony at Newport Beach Country Club. They included awards for species, qualifying points, weight points and more. The first-place awards for Top Angler and Top Boat are named in memory of Ron Ashimine and Josh Miles, respectively. Ashimine, a Vietnam veteran, spent over 800 days at sea with Hsieh and participated in the first WHOW event in 2018 before he passed away in 2019. Miles, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, was director of Military and Charitable Programs at Freedom Alliance and worked closely with the WHOW team before his passing in 2021. Army Ranger Collin Davis accepted the Ron Ashimine Award for Top Angler, and together with his team on Ramble on Rose, captained by Jimmy Kingsmill, accepted the Josh Miles Award presented by his widow, Cyndi Miles.
The tournament has adopted a motto over the past two years: War Heroes on Water is family. Those veterans who have returned to the tournament for a second or third time have testified to the accuracy of that slogan.
During the awards ceremony, one veteran displayed great courage in describing his recent hardships. “I’ve had the honor to serve with the Freedom Alliance team for many years,” says Ryan Behm, an Army medic who served on two combat deployments. “I’ve had the opportunity to fish here for a few years. Everybody is always out here talking about ‘War Heroes on Water is family,’ and I’ve put that to the test over the past couple of years. I’d gotten myself in a spot where I was really struggling, and in this last year, things really came to a head for me, and something was going to break.”
He continued: “I started reaching out to different people who I met here, different vets who have gone through the things that I have. I have reached out to Rod [Halperin] for advice, and I called up a couple of the guys who were on the boat with me last year. We had lots of conversations about how I could fix what was going on. Everybody picked up the phone, everybody came to my aid, they rallied around me, and now I’m in a much better place. I’m doing some amazing things right now, my family is doing great, and whether you guys like it or not, you’re mine.”
The WHOW team has ensured the production of the tournament was flawless, from transportation to meals, parties, lodging and more. But the heart behind it all has guaranteed a life-changing moment with the warriors.
“Every year, it’s so special to be out on the water with our veterans, to hear the stories of our heroes,” Hsieh says. “Listening to their experience from overseas, what they believe in, and what motivates them is so powerful. Their honor, their commitment and their sacrifice to our country is not an act; it’s as authentic as anything can be. It’s a truly amazing experience, and I want to share that with as many people as we can so that we can give our heroes the support they have earned defending our freedom.”
To get involved in this special event or to donate, please visit warheroesonwater.com.