When loanDepot CEO Anthony Hsieh hosted seven combat-wounded veterans for a weekend of sportfishing in the brilliant blue waters of Cabo San Lucas, he initially was just excited to spend time with these veterans.
“Spending the weekend with seven American heroes impacted me greatly,” Hsieh explains. “Among them, multiple Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars with “V” for valor. These veterans have been exposed to multiple IED, RPG, and mortar blasts, resulting in traumatic brain injury.
“I can’t describe the feeling of fishing with these heroes. No egos, all team attitude, amazing men. We, as Americans, just don’t know how lucky we are to have these heroes keeping us safe.”
Over the course of that weekend adventure in 2017, his focus shifted to something more important and long-lasting: supporting veterans’ long-term rehabilitation efforts. It was during that fateful trip that Hsieh conceptualized the War Heroes on Water Tournament, a three-day, on-water event designed to both honor—and provide healing—to combat-wounded veterans.
“Before we made it back from that trip, Anthony was already creating this event,” says Michael Nares, an Army retired staff sergeant who has two Purple Hearts and a bronze star for valor. He was one of the veterans at the Cabo event and who has participated in all three WHOW Tournaments to date.
“This tournament is about a love of country and honoring the men and women who sacrificed everything so that people can live a peaceful and loving life,” he says. “A lot of veterans think that they’re the only ones going through issues, but when you get them together, they realize that they don’t have to deal with it by themselves.”
What Hsieh could not have anticipated was the enthusiastic support he would receive from people in Southern California, including the local sportfishing community and employees of loanDepot. In just three short years, the tournament has raised $1 million to support veterans’ therapeutic services—and the 2021 tournament has an ambitious challenge: To raise $1 million and host 100-plus veterans. It’s slated for next Oct. 1 to 5.
“WHOW has helped me more than I could ever have anticipated,” says Drew Mewes, an Army vet who was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “It has truly changed my life. The tournament—and the people who are participating in it and the people who are there to support it—make all the difference. They meet you where you are, and you move forward together.”
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic presented substantial challenges, including the cancellation of a welcoming party, which was replaced by a boat parade through Newport Harbor.
“The spirit around this year’s event was unparalleled—and completely unexpected,” Hsieh explains.
“During the Boat Parade, people were literally running out of their homes, flags in hand, to honor our veterans. The patriotism we all felt at that moment was truly amazing.
“These unprecedented times have created unique challenges for all of us, but especially for our veterans, who are at particular risk when isolated and removed from their regular routines,” Hsieh says. “We made it our top priority to safely and responsibly continue on with WHOW’s mission in 2020, so that we can continue providing healing and therapeutic services for veterans during this very challenging time.”
Healing on Water
Beyond the pageantry of the welcome ceremonies and boat parade, it is on the water where the real healing begins, and where new, lifelong friendships are created.
Many of the participating boat owners, captains and crews stay in touch with their hosted veterans well beyond the event itself—with many returning to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and family events with them.
“During that first full day of fishing, you really see the walls start to come down,” says Colby Durnin, founder and CEO of Irvine-based Commercial Real Estate Development Enterprises.
Durnin, who owns a boat called “Joint Venture,” is a WHOW founding member, having participated in all three tournaments. “These veterans are amazing individuals who have made it a priority in their lives to be part of something bigger and to put their country before themselves. Our goal is to ensure that they feel like family.”
War Heroes on Water is one of many ways that loanDepot employees give thanks, such as United Cerebral Palsy-Orange County, Boys and Girls Club of Central Orange Coast, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County and Free Wheelchair Mission. The company was recently honored by National Philanthropy Day as its 2020 Outstanding Large Corporation.
This year alone, loanDepot has donated more than $1 million to support COVID-19 impacted individuals and families, first responders and medical personnel.
“We have a responsibility to our employees, our customers and the American people that we take very seriously,” Hsieh says. “This donation is as heartfelt as it is essential in this time of extreme need.”
(Editor’s Note: The Business Journal earlier this year named Anthony Hsieh as one of its 50 most influential executives making a difference during the coronavirus. Since Hsieh began Foothill Ranch-based loanDepot in 2010, it has originated $275 billion in loans and is now the nation’s second largest nonbank mortgage lender. LoanDepot’s revenue may climb 50% this year to more than $2B since lower interest rates have spurred refinancing. Lori Wildrick is vice president of corporate communications at loanDepot.)