‘It’s Fyre Festival for veterans’ — Inside a vet non-profit’s ‘chaotic’ couples retreat
The retreat, dubbed "Camp Tranquility," was anything but, attendees say.
It was supposed to be the perfect getaway.
The six-day trip to Jacó, Costa Rica was advertised to U.S. military veteran couples and their significant others as a tranquil, rejuvenating escape from the everyday. The website for the July 2022 couples retreat advertised a “luxury vacation” set “in the rainforest overlooking the Pacific Ocean,” complete with “exotic fruit mimosas” and “a freshly-cooked meal” three times a day. It boasted a range of activities from sunrise yoga, to a couples massage, group dinners, time at the beach, a waterfall visit, date night, hiking, surfing, and more.
If couples booked before July 4, just $600 in donations to the Academy of United States Veterans (AUSV) would get them a vacation package that included roundtrip flights, transportation to and from the airport, five nights in a private room of a shared villa on the beach, as well as all their meals and activities. For a few hundred dollars more, couples could get all of that and an entire villa to themselves.
For many guests, it was a chance to not only mentally rest and reset individually; for couples, it was also an opportunity to take time to focus just on one another. Yet from the very start, the retreat, dubbed “Camp Tranquility,” was anything but, attendees say. For most couples on the trip, they say, it was the opposite of tranquil.
This story is based on the accounts of six veterans and their partners who attended AUSV’s retreat, emails, text and social media messages sent throughout the trip by guests and AUSV executives, as well as public messages posted on AUSV’s website. Some guests of the trip spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation.
It’s not the first time that AUSV, which runs an annual awards show for veterans advocates called the “Vettys,” has made headlines for questionable practices. A Task & Purpose investigation by Jasper Craven in December outlined a series of allegations surrounding founder and CEO Assal Ravandi and the non-profit, including that Ravandi had “extreme outbursts” against employees and created a “hostile work environment,” and that AUSV was engaged in financial practices that were concerning at best. AUSV appears to offer other types of trips aimed at veterans and their families on their website, including a summer package to Disney World.
More than one guest who spoke to Task & Purpose referred to the couples retreat, hosted by AUSV, as the “Fyre Festival for veterans,” recalling the clusterfuck of massive proportions where music fans and influencers were promised a VIP experience in the Bahamas but were instead stranded with no lodging, food, or support.
In the case of “Camp Tranquility,” guests described the Costa Rica veterans retreat as unorganized and unprofessional at best; some who spoke to Task & Purpose wondered if it bordered on fraudulent. Immediately upon arriving, one guest said things “were chaotic.”
No meals were provided — Ravandi, “did not pay for one meal, not a grain of rice,” one guest said — and no activities were organized. The “villas” were not “beachfront,” as had been advertised, and those were for the guests who even had lodging set up by AUSV. Others said they eventually had to find their own accommodations when it became clear Ravandi, herself an Army veteran, would not have something for them. And while they’d been told their trip package included roundtrip tickets, some quickly discovered while in Costa Rica that they’d have to book their own flights back home.
What was meant to be a time of relaxation and meditation was instead the cause of significant stress. Multiple sources mentioned getting into fights with their spouse or significant other as tensions built on a trip they’d been looking forward to using as a way to reconnect.
More egregious allegations included at least one Army veteran who lost both of his legs on a deployment to Afghanistan not being provided with mobility accommodations, despite him and his wife telling the event coordinators at AUSV weeks in advance that they would need a room big enough for his wheelchair.
“My wife said, ‘Well we need a handicap accessible room because my husband’s a double amputee,” Alex Jauregui, an Army vet who served four tours in the Middle East, recalled in an interview with Task & Purpose. “And one of the very first comments was like, ‘Well this is a veteran organization, everybody’s disabled.’”
A message from Ravandi on the AUSV website acknowledged that “everything went south” with the trip and that she “may be guilty of having made a poor business decision by keeping things going.” Her statement blames the trip falling apart on a “major storm/flood,” which she says left Airbnb rentals unusable. “It was dangerous,” she said. The guests who spoke to Task & Purpose acknowledged that a storm happened on the first evening of the trip, July 21, which dumped heavy rains on the area for hours. But by the next morning, they said, the weather was back to normal. Tourists and locals alike were going about their business in town, the sun was out, and some guests were able to schedule their own activities like ATV tours and horseback riding.
“She used this so-called ‘flooding’ for the entire trip as her excuse of why it hindered logistics, hindered lodging, hindered transportation, communication, doing activities,” said one Air Force veteran who attended the retreat. “But it’s all BS because the next day, we were able to get around and do whatever we wanted to do on our own.”
Ravandi and AUSV did not respond to repeated requests for comment with a detailed list of questions from Task & Purpose for this article. The first attempt to reach her was met with an automated email response from Ravandi stating: “We are traveling back from Costa Rica from our scheduled couples retreat,” the email said. “There was a flood and storm on the first day of arrival, and it has been a long week as all our plans were altered.”
She went on to say that she would not be in the office until Aug. 1, “as we need a break to re-group, restructure and reorganize,” and included the number for the veterans’ crisis line in case there was a mental health emergency.
“Otherwise,” the email concludes, “we thank you for your patience while we take a mental health break.”
‘This is not a luxury vacation’
On March 15, 2022, Ravandi reached out to an Army officer on LinkedIn.
The message from Ravandi, obtained by Task & Purpose, advertised all-men and all-women mental health retreats, which Ravandi said would be an “all-inclusive experience,” including meals, flights, activities, “and more.” The message also included an RSVP link to the couples retreat website, which outlined the same benefits.
“Vacations can improve mood and reduce stress by removing people from the activities and environments that they associate with stress and anxiety,” the website page says. “The things that cause you stress in your daily life seem far away when you travel, which helps you put everything into better perspective once you return home.”
The Army officer and their significant other ultimately decided to go on the trip, but the tone of what was promised changed almost immediately after guests began arriving on July 21. As the couples arrived in Costa Rica, they traveled to a main villa where they were told they’d be having their meals and could use as a central location to congregate whenever they wished.
Around 3 p.m. that day, the rain started.
Each guest Task & Purpose spoke to acknowledged that there was a storm that night, with particularly heavy rain. And when they learned their accommodations weren’t going to be ready for them and saw that plans were starting to fall through, many said they were trying to be understanding because of the unexpected weather.
However, the guests who spoke with Task & Purpose say that Ravandi used the storm as an excuse for why things weren’t panning out. In an email sent that evening, and obtained by Task & Purpose, Ravandil said she was “stuck” with other guests “in an area that we did not expect” because of the rain. More than a dozen couples had already checked into their accommodations, she said, taking issue with the fact that she was getting “calls about food” while others were still trying to figure out where they’d be staying.
“Let’s be honest the funds paid do not even cover most airfare,” Ravandi emailed. “We have spent a lot of money and resources to get here, and we will see it through but for tonight we need to soldier up. This is not a luxury vacation. Luxury vacation [sic] in central America would cost 2000-3000 dollars per person. This is time away from city life.”
The message was directly at odds with how the couples retreat was advertised on the website, which described it as a “luxury couple’s vacation” with “luxury private” accommodations.
Multiple guests said the rest of the trip was like this: Ravandi would explain what went wrong, but seemed intent on putting the responsibility on the guests to tough it out and make the most of it. The very next day after arriving, guests said they went to the main villa only to find a cleaning service sweeping through the house. They told the guests that Ravandi had checked out. Ravandi said in an email that evening that they’d closed the base camp because the “majority of you were not coming and going and it was being wasted.”
“We’re like, we didn’t even have a chance to use it,” said another Army veteran on the trip. “We literally woke up this morning, we were told that you would have information for us by 11, it’s noon and you’ve already checked out. Nobody even had a chance to go there.”
“I think that’s when people started to look at things a little bit differently,” said the Army officer that Ravandi contacted on LinkedIn back in March.
The veteran also recalled Ravandi saying they spent almost $80,000 on airfare alone to get the couples to Costa Rica. In her online message, Ravandi said they spent “$75k+ to get everyone here.”
“We’re doing the math on that and that’s just not true … the numbers aren’t adding up,” the second Army veteran said. “And we’re also like, that’s not our problem. I don’t want to be like assholes or anything, but you can’t use that against us. You contacted us for this trip, you set the prices … You’re the one that told us that we would get accommodations and activities, and you raised funds from other people to pay for this. You can’t tell us that we need to be more grateful and resilient because you spent $80k.”
Another guest, Sha Spears, said that a storm shouldn’t have impacted accommodations that were supposed to have been booked in advance.
“If she booked these things, if she booked these rooms, she booked these spa packages, she booked these flights … if you had all this stuff arranged, and the storm happened then everything was good the morning after the storm all the way up until everybody left, I mean everything should have still been in place,” Spears said.
While the couples said the rain stopped the morning of July 22, the logistical issues didn’t. The group of veterans and their partners began splitting into two camps: one which felt things weren’t going well, and the other who defended Ravandi and said AUSV was doing their best. An email chain viewed by Task & Purpose shows the group beginning to argue, with some telling others to stop complaining while those without accommodations continued pushing for answers.
In an email on July 25, one guest defended AUSV to the group, saying it was their first time organizing a trip “at this scale” and “thing[s] did not go as planned” because of the storm, but that they could “move forward” and “come alongside Assal and Maria in peace,” referring to Maria Sutherland, the chief operating officer at AUSV. Jauregui’s wife, Isa McIntyre, responded that it seemed only some couples were getting “preferential treatment” from Ravandi.
“I will also remind this group that my husband is a double amputee, and the one request we had was for a handicap accessible room,” McIntyre emailed. “We never received such accommodations and my husband had to crawl on the floor to get to the bathroom at night. Meanwhile, Assal and Maria were comfortably housed at their resort.”
On Thursday, Jon McConico, another guest of the trip who said he was an Air Force veteran, defended AUSV and the trip. He acknowledged there was a “lack of staffing” and that Navandi and Sutherland were “unable to follow through perfectly.” But he said the “negativity from a few couples caused of lot of unnecessary stress on everyone.” The stress “was evident,” he added, “and Assal broke down a time or two.”
“Overall, we still made the best of things. Was the trip a rough one? Yes,” McConico said. “Would I still come knowing everything? Yes.”
As time went on, couples said they started fending for themselves, paying for their own meals and planning their own activities to make the most of being in Costa Rica, and in some cases finding their own lodging. They said communication with Ravandi grew more and more inconsistent. Multiple guests recalled that the locals in Jacó were kind and helpful; Jauregui and McIntyre said they were given free lodging by an Airbnb host when their reservation ended and they still hadn’t been able to book flights home yet. Jauregui also mentioned that the manager of their original Airbnb even built him a ramp for his wheelchair, since there was one step up into the unit.
“The manager … with no kind of duty was more concerned than AUSV,” he said.
The issues didn’t stop there, and neither did AUSV’s attempts at spin and damage control, the guests said. On Ravandi’s Facebook and Instagram pages she posted photos of couples together horseback riding, standing with drinks in their hands, and gathered together at what appears to be a restaurant smiling at the camera. “Couples retreat in Costa Rica was faced with a major flood and some unfortunate incidents but in the end many found a way to make the best of it,” Ravandi said in the group photo post.
Spears said Ravandi’s caption gave a false impression of what was actually happening when that photo was taken. “That picture was because we forced you to have a meeting with us, so you took a picture with people and posted it like ‘oh everything is going good, but no,’” Spears said. “That was because we forced you to have a meeting.”
Below the photo, the Facebook post says that Ravandi had “limited who can comment on this post.”
‘She’s a master manipulator’
In lengthy messages through email and posted on the AUSV website, Ravandi vowed to make things right. In one email sent on the morning of July 23, she told guests that she was planning to move in with her mother after returning to the U.S. at the conclusion of the trip this week, at which time she said she would use her personal monthly disability payments from the VA to pay them back “whether or not you accept the money.”
She went on to list out her full name, address, date of birth, and social security number so guests could “come after” her if she didn’t pay them back.
“If I could walk into the sea and drown, I would,” Ravandi said in the email. “Believe me I would but it will not solve anything. So, what I will do is to try to come up with a solution.”
That solution was outlined in a nine-part plan on the AUSV website. Ravandi said she apologized “from the bottom of my heart,” and said all previously scheduled trips up until Jan. 1, 2023, would be canceled. The organization would launch a fundraising campaign to pay people back, she said. But mostly, the plan to make the couples “financially whole” again depended on other people who had purchased trips or made donations to the organization not to dispute the credit card charges. If they do that, she said, “bankruptcy is the only option.”
“Many claim their rage is due to their ‘care’ for the community. Well, if they genuinely care about the community, they would cease hurting an entity that is trying to do right by the community,” she said.
The Air Force veteran recalled receiving “crazy emails” from Ravandi. “Like who responds in this manner?” Spears called Ravandi a “master manipulator,” who was throwing a “whole pity party.” The Army veteran who went on the trip said Ravandi’s messaging seemed to claim again and again that “she’s the victim.”
“It’s been very clear from all her correspondence that she’s the victim,” the veteran said. “And we have caused the situation, or Mother Nature has caused the situation, no responsibility for anything. The only thing I’ve seen her take responsibility for is that she didn’t have a contingency logistics plan. Like, that’s it? That’s the only thing you think you messed up here?”
Indeed, in her message on the AUSV website, Ravandi appeared to acknowledge that the trip was already stretched thin financially, so much so that they went in without extra funds for a backup plan, but that the “most important thing was to see it through.”
“[H]aving a travel program without a contingency plan is never a good idea,” she said. “But due to our limited budget we did not have much choice.”
Ultimately, Ravandi said in her statement on the website that if credit card disputes “begin to drain us even more,” AUSV will be “forced to file for bankruptcy,” and therefore won’t qualify for government grants.
“Therefore, it would mean no refunds for anyone at all,” Ravandi said. She appeared to raise the possibility of declining refunds on Wednesday morning after Task & Purpose had reached out to her for comment. In a message to Jauregui, Ravandi said “we are trying to make things work and your wife went to the media so now any chances of recovery is done and over with.”
“It’s really a shame. I am not worried about me,” she texted. “Because other than maybe not having a contingency plan we have no other fault on our shoulders. And [being] cash poor isn’t a crime. I am just sorry for those who will get screwed as a result.”
It’s unclear what recourse the guests have in attempting to get their money back. While they’ve submitted requests for a refund, many said they weren’t at all hopeful they would see that money again. Several guests said they’d heard from other people who had gone on trips in the past with AUSV and had similar experiences; they were still waiting on refunds, they said.
All but one of the veterans who spoke to Task & Purpose urged others not to get involved with AUSV.
“Do not support an organization that mistreats veterans the way that they do,” the Army veteran said of AUSV. “There are a ton of legitimate foundations and agencies out there that provide services. Do not associate with, do not support, do not donate to, do not travel with AUSV.”
Ravandi said in her message on the AUSV website that while all upcoming trips, except for trips to Europe which were planned with “restricted funds,” were canceled, AUSV would still plan to hold this year’s Annual Veterans Awards.
Indeed, there is an 8th Annual Veterans Awards webpage on the AUSV website, saying it will be held on Jan. 28, 2023, in Washington, D.C. It offers various packages that donors can choose from, ranging from a $100 Platinum package — including seating, hors d’oeuvres, two glasses of wine and champagne, and access to the Vettys Ball — to a $1,000 Diamond VIP package, which offers red carpet access and an open bar.
AUSV “has saved my life,” Ravandi concluded in her message online. “I would very much like to go back to the entity that it was two years ago with celebrity support, our Annual Veterans Awards, and yearly movie screenings. But I cannot do it alone. It will take a village. I need all of you to participate.
“This organization, while founded by me, does not belong to me,” she said. “It belongs to you.”
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