“It was the most incredible sight,” says David, a Marine veteran, when his sailfish erupted from the calm Pacific waters in a series of explosive leaps. David was serving in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, and was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head. He was one of sixteen men of each branch of the military who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan which were treated to a six-day experience at Los Sueños Resort and Marina in Costa Rica. The excursion was hosted by Freedom Alliance, a charity whose mission is to honor and encourage military service, and this was their sixth annual Heroes Vacation.
The Heroes Vacation consists of ultimate getaway featuring zip lining through the Costa Rican jungle, a tour of the crocodile-infested Tarcoles River, a day on the white sands of Tortuga Isle, a golf clinic and more. There are over thirty individuals in the community who donate all aspects of this event, including the use of their boats, condominiums, golf carts and hosted meals. The heroes are given Tunaskin Aquatic Apparel fishing shirts and polarized sunglasses from Costa Del Mar to ensure nothing impedes their enjoyment. Marine wildlife artist Steve Goione donates original artwork and gives each serviceman a signed print. But the trip goes well beyond gifts and vacationing.
“The group consists of those who have been in the fight, have been wounded, and have sacrificed for the betterment of their countrymen,” says Freedom Alliance staff member Pepper Ailor, who has been coordinating this event since 2013. Last year, Ailor read The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath, a book that formulates how to create memorable experiences with more lasting meaning. Ailor realized with just a little more intentional planning, Freedom Alliance could create a defining moment in the lives of those attending this event. “This has become a highly orchestrated set of activities and discussions meant to produce lasting impact and well-being, and from the feedback we are getting – it accomplishes just that.”
The event concludes with two days of offshore fishing on some of the finest sport-fishers in Los Sueños Marina. “By this point, the veterans have been introduced to a few concepts that promote conversations in the cockpit in between the peaks of excitement when fighting fish,” said Ailor.
Ron Rule, owner of 54-foot Viking Fuujin, is an Air Force veteran himself and named the boat after his fighter squadron. The boat is recognizable in the marina during the week of the Heroes Vacation, as it flies each flag of the different military. In previous years, he would play the service hymn of the veterans onboard followed by the bugle call for “Charge!” This time, Ron hosted two Marines the first day – David, mentioned above, and Brandon, a Scout Sniper who deployed five times. Brandon was very stoic and kept to himself for the first several days of the week, but had a turning point while fishing. He had just reeled in a big dorado and was asked to hold it by the tail for a photo. The fish had other plans as it jostled out of Brandon’s grip, was wrestled on the deck, and brought back up into a bear hug while still convulsing. The laughter was raucous and Brandon’s smile appeared more and more often.
Todd, a decorated Navy rescue swimmer and door gunner, fished on the 65-foot Hatteras, Bullwinkle, on the first day. After catching his first sailfish, the Bullwinkle crew jumped in the water with Todd to swim with his catch and filmed the experience so he could share it with his family upon return home. Todd says, “The fish was beautiful, the water was clear, and I shared a connection with this amazing creature in its own element – amazing!” Later, Todd presented Mike Winget, owner of the vessel, with a Challenge Coin, which is a small medallion emblazoned with a unit insignia. It is a military tradition and they are presented to the recipient for excellence and as a gesture of gratitude.
Marine Corporal Larry fished on Bullwinkle the second day. He lost both of his legs and several fingers after an improvised explosive device blast detonated under his feet in Afghanistan. With the loss of his legs, Larry’s body has a much harder time keeping cool because of the increased blood flow, and it is hard to remain in the heat for long periods of time. But Larry had no issues on Bullwinkle, with a plush, fully air-conditioned salon to enjoy in between hook-ups while talking with his brother-in-arms, John, a Marine Raider who has deployed six times in his 12 years of service. Larry says, “It took me a long time to make my heart and mind better. I had to be OK with what I had done and what was done to me before I could even start to get better. Yeah, I lost my legs, but the real healing is way bigger than that.” Larry ended the day landing a 65-pound yellowfin tuna, with a smile that was much larger than any fish caught that day.
Two Combat Controllers, those who deploy frequently and are attached to special operation teams to call in air support, represented the Air Force. Being part of the elite teams, they noticed the success of catching fish relied heavily on teamwork. While fishing with Chris and Laura Jessen on the 63-foot Hatteras Fish Tank, one airman admired, “No talking, just constant movement from the mates: moving here, moving there, messing with this, lowering that, reel in a line and put fresh bait on it.” He continued, “Just knowing exactly what needed to be done and then, fish on!”
Anthony is an Army medically retired veteran who served two tours and was wounded by a mortar explosion that led to a brain injury. Living in Tennessee, he chases trout in the small streams, bass in local ponds and rivers, and searches for red drum any chance he gets – but offshore fishing is his dream. Late last year, he had called Bill Pino of Squidnation to inquire about squid teasers and when Bill learned that he was a disabled veteran, he encouraged Anthony to call Freedom Alliance. A few months later, Anthony received an email inviting him to the Heroes Vacation at Los Sueños. He immediately called Ailor saying, “I’m shaking. Is this for real?”
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Anthony had caught a black marlin in the afternoon the previous day onboard the Spencer, Pelese, with owner Marc Stanley. The next day, while fishing onboard the 56 Viking Done Deal, he caught a sailfish early and knew he had a chance at a grand slam if it could occur within 24 hours. Sure enough, a blue marlin was spotted. Anthony said, “It came up on the mudflap dredge teaser and it was so aggressive it followed them all the way to the boat. We had the pitch bait out but he seemed so focused on the teasers I thought we had no chance. So now the teasers are all the way out of the water and the marlin was nowhere to be seen, and I felt my chance of getting the ultimate grand slam slipping away. A few minutes later, out of nowhere, the marlin jumped on the pitch bait and on the drop back, I saw the marlin engulf the bait.”
That night at the final farewell dinner, owner Jed Silver of Done Deal and Capt. Bob Edsberg teamed up to produce a marlin flag and a sailfish flag. They secretly circled the room getting signatures from all those involved and presented it to Anthony to commemorate his accomplishment. Anthony says, “I felt amazed that someone not only took the time to donate their wonderful yacht, crew, and time but also made it even more special by presenting me with such stunning pieces of memorabilia.”
After the trip was complete, Anthony told Freedom Alliance about the impact this trip made for him and the family that he will return home to. He said, “Thank you for being so generous and thank you to all those that donated to soldiers like myself. This trip was the first time in many years we were able to truly relax. I will never be able to put into words how much this trip meant to me and the effect it will have for my wife when I return home. I finally feel peaceful and hope I can take what gifts the wonderful people in Los Sueños have given back to my life and continue to improve the quality of life for my family. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”