From 2004 to 2007, the city of Ramadi, Iraq, was one of the most violent and bloody places on the planet, where the American military was fighting a determined enemy and a steadfast insurgency. Mike Nares and Chris Moret served with the 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment on two deployments spanning 27 months of fighting to make peace in that city of turmoil. In 2009, both men were sent to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, where they spent another tour conducting patrols and carrying out humanitarian missions. Nares was wounded twice over the course of his three deployments, receiving two Purple Heart medals: one from a blast from an improvised explosive device in Iraq, and one from a 3½-hour gunfight during which four of his fellow soldiers were killed.
Sitting aboard the sport-fisher Bad Company earlier this year in Costa Rica, Nares was excited to hear that boat owner Anthony Hsieh was dreaming big about honoring veterans. Nares had first met Hsieh through the Freedom Alliance, a charity that supports the military and their families. In 2017, Hsieh had partnered with Freedom Alliance to host a fishing trip for a group of veterans to enjoy Cabo’s most exciting attraction: sport fishing. Nares was among the eight veterans selected for the trip, and his friendship with his benefactor continued long after the return flight to California.
Hsieh envisioned a way to rally the Southern California sport-fishing community to not only host a fishing event, but to go beyond the activity to help a deserving charity that honors the military daily. He selected the Freedom Alliance as the benefiting charity to recruit the troops. Sponsorships were numerous, and offers from boat owners came pouring in.
On August 16, 2018, Hsieh greeted 27 veterans, both combat-wounded and those with multiple deployments, at his home in Newport Beach, California, to kick off the War Heroes on Water tournament. Sponsors and donors came to the catered private party to celebrate America and its defenders. These men, some who had lost limbs in foreign wars, were shocked by the grand gesture for which no expense was spared.
The tournament consisted of fishing for several species around the islands of San Clemente and Catalina for three days aboard nine vessels. Rod Halperin served as tournament director, leading a team of very talented staff and volunteers to tackle every logistical hurdle for the event.
Nares and his comrade in arms Moret hadn’t seen each other since they both served in the Army. Their friendship lasted through those three combat deployments, and Nares recommended Moret to attend the tournament with him. Their reunion was unforgettable — from the bloody streets of Iraq and the IED-infested lands of Afghanistan to the calm waters of sunny Southern California, the contrast was incomparable.
During the tournament, Moret and Nares fished on the 47-foot Pacifica Joint Venture, owned by Colby Durnin and captained by Jim Kingsmill. Angler Pat Holmes assisted in the cockpit, instructing the men on fishing techniques alongside Durnin.
The event’s first day was a practice day, and the vets were split among the participating boats heading to Catalina Island. That evening, Hsieh gathered all the participants on the 144-foot Bad Company to welcome the veterans and relay his message of gratitude for their service. Country singer Colton James provided onboard entertainment as the men enjoyed a meal catered by Hsieh’s personal chef and crew.
Returning to Joint Venture that evening, Durnin asked the soldiers to decide on which species to target first. Bluefin tuna hadn’t been seen in those waters for 100 years but had showed up three summers ago, and everyone was abuzz with the potential of catching these big fish. Both Nares and Moret agreed they wanted to target the bluefin. “Go big or go home,” said Nares.
On Saturday, Kingsmill spotted several white-water boils on the surface where the bluefin were feeding, but couldn’t get a bite by casting to them. The next several hours were spent using a kite rigged to skip flying fish where the tuna were. As the sun hung low in the sky, Nares’ reel sang. Moret was told to reel in his bait, and as soon as he touched the rod, he was bit too. Joint Venture was hooked to a double.
An hour later, after the crew was soaked from backing down on the fish, Nares’ tuna was in the cockpit. Among high-fives and celebrations, Moret kept cranking away. It took another hour and 20 minutes, in the dark, before his tuna was landed. He was utterly exhausted, but couldn’t stop smiling.
The second and final day of the tournament, the team caught their limit of Pacific rock cod before heading to the scales on Bad Company to weigh their tuna. Nares’ fish weighed in at 178 pounds, and Moret’s bluefin tuna was just 2 pounds shy of 200.
The other boats rendezvoused at Bad Company for the final dinner and awards ceremony. As James performed, several World War II-era fighter planes buzzed the boat for a flyover. In a very emotionally charged address to the participants, Hsieh described how grateful he is to live in a country like America and to have warriors like those standing before him to defend it. Others echoed his sentiments, including the captain of the 92-foot Bad Company, Steve Lassley, and tournament director Halperin.
Team Bad Company took the top overall prize in the event. One of the anglers, a Navy diver, landed a bluefin tuna 5 pounds larger than Moret’s. In all, 208 qualifying fish were caught, including eight bluefin tuna, 15 dorado, one yellowfin tuna, four yellowtail, 92 calico bass and 88 rockfish.
Beyond leading the logistics of the tournament and raising money for the operating costs of the event, Hsieh also spearheaded the efforts to raise money for Freedom Alliance. He arranged a silent auction and encouraged giving from the community that tallied over $90,000 in cash donations.
Bill Larkin, owner of the 65-foot Mikelson Play-N Hookey, summed up what the participating boat owners and captains experienced: “We got to meet some outstanding young men, and the stories of what these guys went through — and are still going through — were unbelievable. They represent America’s best, and yet every one of them will tell you there are others more deserving of this support. We are humbled even more by being in the presence of those who have sacrificed so much, and it really hits home how much of an impact something like this can have.”