The taste of thick salt air and strong hot coffee. Gulls cackle and spin, and the horizons unfold with the promise of offshore adventure. Concerns and cares seem to melt away, replaced by feelings of anticipation and a sense of being part of something much larger. No matter your political stance, we cannot deny a significant debt of gratitude we owe to the military. Our veterans have endured conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last two decades — and Vietnam and Korea prior to that. Many of those service members have lost close friends, while others have lost digits and even limbs. Some fight mental-health problems that are far more insidious than any physical wounds; the suicide rate for our nation’s veterans is alarmingly high. But one activity has been proven to help in nearly every circumstance: fishing.
It’s called experiential therapy. The clinical definition is to identify and address hidden or repressed feelings through the use of props and images, in addition to other ways. But taking that a step further, experiential therapy is also engaging in activities like rock climbing, painting, sculpting, hiking, hunting and fishing. Mix in small groups of veterans, many of whom are experiencing similar issues, allow them to interact without fear of judgment or outside interference, and the benefits can be immense.
The Los Sueños Connection
Freedom Alliance is a charitable organization that supports wounded troops and their families, providing college scholarships for the children of killed or disabled members of the military. The foundation also assists deployed troops and provides things like mortgage-free homes and all-terrain wheelchairs to families in need, and much more. Their Heroes Vacations give veterans a way to take a well-deserved break and enjoy a variety of activities, including fishing. The first of these trips was in Panama City, Florida, in 2008, where veterans were guests of the Bay Point Billfish Tournament. Galati Yacht Sales donated a day of offshore fishing for the troops, and Freedom Alliance began to build a long relationship with the Galati family. Four years later, Capt. Tony Carrizosa introduced Freedom Alliance to Gerald and Virginia Lindholm in Los Sueños, Costa Rica.
The Lindholms spearheaded the efforts, along with help from the Los Sueños management team, locating donations within the community for boats, accommodations, meals and more for the troops. Now in its fourth year, approximately 15 veterans attend each season to bond over their common and shared experiences. The troops enjoy a Tarcoles River crocodile safari and zip-line tour, as well as a golf clinic. But the undeniable highlight of the trip is two days of offshore fishing aboard some of the finest vessels in the Los Sueños marina. Everyone has an opportunity to catch their first billfish, and the experiences for all those involved are truly priceless.
“It is an honor and a privilege to provide Heroes Vacations as a way to thank service members who have sacrificed so much — it is a significant responsibility we take very seriously,” says Tom Kilgannon, Freedom Alliance president. “These brave men have seen the worst of conditions while fighting for our country. Now they deserve to enjoy some of the best experiences that we can offer them.
“There are three important components to helping a wounded hero rehabilitate on outdoor adventures like this: the destination, the activity and the people with whom our troops interact. Los Sueños knocks it out of the park in all three aspects, especially with the people,” Kilgannon says. “Bill Royster and his team get an A-plus in hero hospitality. The boat owners and residents of Los Sueños open their hearts in a way the troops really appreciate. They show genuine concern and do all they can to offer them an opportunity to truly relax in a way that many of these guys may not have had since before their first deployment. It is not always easy to offer genuine friendship, but the Los Sueños community does it in the true spirit of pura vida.”
Pepper Ailor, program director for Freedom Alliance and photographer for the group’s trips, says that it can be a life-changing experience. “Sometimes there are lots of demons, but the guys are able to leave those behind when they come to Costa Rica,” he says. “The vastness of the ocean gives you a sense of being part of a larger world that’s worth living.” He adds that there are no counselors or therapists, just the troops. “They feel comfortable among the others in the group, where they can talk about what’s going on in their lives. That experience really means a lot to them, that they are not alone.”
Vets in the Keys
Krissy Wejebe-Moloney is familiar with turning negative situations into positive ones. She founded the nonprofit Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation following the untimely death of her father, Jose Wejebe, a well-known angler, TV personality and conservationist. Krissy’s husband, Dave Moloney, a Navy veteran with over nine years of service, had been diagnosed with a service-related injury. While he was in a Veterans Affairs Hospital in Miami, Krissy noticed a “Volunteers Wanted” sign for the recreational department, and she knew right away she wanted to help. “It felt like my dad was pointing me in that direction,” she says. “We were already working with Make-A-Wish Foundation through our foundation, but we were looking for other ways to help. Our mission is to honor my father’s legacy by making fishing dreams come true for those who face major life-impacting challenges, and that definitely applies to the veterans.”
Krissy and Dave, now a fishing guide in the Keys, host several trips a year, bringing groups of service veterans down to the Florida Keys. The troops also take educational trips, like a tour of the Mote Marine Lab in Key West. When asked about the impact these trips have on the veterans, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “To see the joy that it brings to others who have never done it is fantastic,” Wejebe says. “When these warriors show up here in the Keys, they’re wound up pretty tight: They back their trucks in so they can make a fast escape if they have to, and they check the perimeter. One guy had an anxiety attack because a door was locked. But when they leave, you can see that transition. You get back so much more than you give.”
Bluewater Movements, a sports-marketing company based in South Florida, hosts seven popular bluewater tournaments each year. “I’m really proud of each of our events we produce,” says tournament director Jamie Bunn. “However, I have to say Operation Sailfish is a favorite. We are so blessed to live in a country where we have men and women who are committed to preserving and protecting our freedom. Operation Sailfish is a way for us to say thank you.” The tournament also serves as a fundraiser for Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization providing short-term and critical assistance, as well as long-term stability and recurring support programs for families in need. Operation Homefront focuses much of its efforts on the lowest paid service members, the E-1 through E-6 enlisted ranks.
In support of the military theme, winners of Operation Sailfish take home a beautifully engraved set of military-style dog tags as part of the prize package; the patriotic elements carry through the tournament on a variety of levels. Many teams substitute small American flags for the usual sailfish release pennants, creating an unforgettable sight as teams return to port at the end of the day’s fishing. Prior to the start of the tournament, there is a presentation of the national colors, plus Take a Hero Fishing day. “In the last few years, we’ve hosted Take a Hero Fishing while the boats are pre-fishing,” Bunn says. “The teams are supportive of the troops, and a lot of the veterans catch their first sailfish. It’s great to see the impact we have and to give thanks for their unbelievable service to our country.”
And while he’s still planning for this year’s Operation Sailfish, Bunn knows more can be done. “I’d love to see 50 veterans on the water here as part of this tournament,” he adds.
From Ducks to Marlin
Combat Warriors started eight years ago as a way for veterans to connect with one another through a series of duck hunts in Eastern North Carolina, put together by president and founder Bill Warren. From the initial group of five, the charity now has grown to help over 300 vets through a total of 18 different events. “I had a friend from Fort Bragg who was sending troops to a deer hunt in Wisconsin 10 years ago,” Warren says. “I had a duck-hunting camp in Hyde County, North Carolina, so a couple years later, I hosted a group of service members there. The local community just loved meeting those guys.” Jim Rickman from the charter boat Outer Limits got to know the vets and suggested a charter trip the following season. He helped recruit several other captains and boats, including Fin Gaddy on Qualifier and Dennis Endee aboard A-Salt-Weapon. As the fishing trips grew, so did the catches. “One year, we had six boats, 30 warriors and six board members, and we caught 31 white marlin,” Warren relates with a grin. “All the warriors got to catch a marlin, so that was really special.” He says that although they might be the toughest warriors our nation can field — Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force commandos and Recon Marines — they all share the common bond of service and sacrifice, as well as a love of the outdoors.
And the change in them is just as dramatic. “When you see the photos, these guys might all look pretty healthy. You’d be surprised at the injuries they have sustained, both mentally and physically,” Warren says. “But they don’t want any wheelchairs or anything on the boats — they just want to go fishing like everyone else. There’s a strong bond that’s formed with those five or six guys on each boat. They’ve all said that it’s hard to communicate with people who haven’t been there. It’s a healing process, where they can talk to each other and take those burdens off their shoulders.”
Ross W., an active member in special operations who asked us not to use his full name, says: “A friend from Afghanistan that I kept in touch with invited me to go on the [Combat Warriors] fishing trip. I had never been before, and I don’t think the experience will ever be topped. I was able to bring my brother, a Navy SEAL out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, on board at the last minute. Sharing deployment stories with my friends and my brother was an incredible experience. There was a great sense of camaraderie throughout the trip. I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about a lot of my downrange experiences with my brother up to this point, so getting to do so on the trip was something I will never forget and will always be thankful for.”
Scores of charitable organizations help our nation’s veterans, wounded or not, in myriad ways. The Freedom Alliance, Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation, Operation Homefront and Combat Warriors are just a few of the many groups that take our veterans out on the deep blue in search of not only heart-stopping action but also the quiet that comes with finding inner peace.