In the Heart of Darkness: Veterans Hunt Alligators to Heal the Wounds of War

In the Heart of Darkness: Veterans Hunt Alligators to Heal the Wounds of War
See our slideshow of the gator hunt here.

The airboat captain is desperate to spot a gleaming pair of eyes. In the middle of the St. Johns River, in the redneck heart of Florida, darkness is deepening, and a chill envelops the swamp. For nearly five hours, six men have sat on thinly padded seats, wearing earphones to muffle the airboat's roar. They swat prehistoric insects off one another in silence. Wind rattles their jowls, slices through their jeans. They chew tobacco to distract their empty stomachs.

In the front seat is a pale, thin, 24-year-old former Army specialist with two dead weights for legs. His back aches, and he shivers in the cold. Kyle Finley has been a duck hunter all his life. He survived a rocket attack on his Humvee in Afghanistan that left a ten-inch piece of shrapnel lodged in his leg. He knows how to hunt and kill things. But this alligator hunt is different.

Finley is here thanks to the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit that takes combat-wounded vets from Iraq and Afghanistan on hunting and fishing vacations. On the tenth anniversary of America's invasion of Afghanistan, such groups are sprouting up around the country. The goal is to help veterans heal by putting them back in a unit again, bonding with comrades over a long weekend. For organizers, it's a rare chance to give back, soothe the collective guilt over what one volunteer calls a "worthless war."

"That bitch be mine!" says Greg Amira, who was wounded on 9/11 and in Iraq.
Colby Katz
"That bitch be mine!" says Greg Amira, who was wounded on 9/11 and in Iraq.
"It's like a brother bond that can never be broken," says retired Army Sgt. Gary Horn.
Colby Katz
"It's like a brother bond that can never be broken," says retired Army Sgt. Gary Horn.

Airboat captain Scott Swartley cuts the motor. "Throw out in from of 'im," he tells his mate. The volunteer crew is using heavy-duty fishing poles with wooden pegs to bait the lizards, snaring them so they can be shot. But so far, the gators are elusive. It's 10:30 p.m. on October 1, and Finley has yet to squeeze the trigger on his crossbow.

The men shift uneasily in their seats. There is so little they can do. Finley is stalking an enemy renowned for its stealth power, one that has stymied man for centuries.

A squeak of reel, a splash of bait hitting the water.

Finley leans forward, into the dark.

The weekend begins at the American Legion Riders Post 81 in Melbourne, where plates are piled high with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and stewed green beans. Before Finley and the four other young veterans can get their hands greasy, the crowd rises to its feet around them. A woman with a microphone launches into "God Bless America." Hands over hearts, the crowd sings along. The veterans sit at their table of honor, trying not to chew obtrusively.

"You like to sing?" a white-haired lady, clearly intoxicated, comes over to ask a quiet, handsome, brown-haired soldier. This is Ryan Olech, a 30-year-old Army ranger who took two bullets in Afghanistan. He got out of the service in July and is now living with his wife in Pennsylvania, planning to attend school for taxidermy next year.

"I don't sing," Olech tries to discourage the woman, who is old enough to be his grandma. She keeps talking. Olech can't understand a word she's saying.

Members of the American Legion post hover over the vets' shoulders, offering bottles of Bud and second helpings of chicken they spent all day frying. "We really do appreciate your service and your sacrifice and your contribution to the American way," one elderly man says, and the message is repeated throughout the night.

A white cake with blue-flowered frosting appears. The drunk lady returns to chat with Duane Wallace, the group's master gator guide. He listens and nods politely. Olech grins across the table.

"Seeing as you kids aren't drinking, I'll drink for you," the lady drawls.

Olech's gaze shifts toward John McDaniel, the founder of Wounded Warriors, who is beside him telling war stories. Even with his gray stubble and plaid shirt, McDaniel looks like the retired Army lieutenant colonel he is: broad shoulders, prodigious chest, twinkling eyes, and a smile that could charm the Taliban. The men call him "sir" or "the colonel."

When he began taking wounded vets on trips five years ago, McDaniel was living in Delray Beach, running a private aviation company, Northstar Group in Boca Raton. Back then, he and his wife paid for the vacations themselves — hunting on land the couple owned in Wisconsin, fishing in Tampa Bay and the Keys. McDaniel had taken similar trips with buddies during his 20-year military career. When he retired, he realized such excursions could help soldiers "deal with some of the wounds the doctors can't fix."

This year, he has 43 hunting trips serving 100 veterans nationwide — hog hunting near Dallas, quail hunting in New York, elk hunting in Washington State, duck hunting in Missouri. The annual Florida gator hunt is one of the most popular trips. McDaniel, who now lives in Apollo Beach, still doesn't take a salary; his organization depends on donations and volunteers.

At the post, it's too noisy to hear the details of the colonel's story, but it's having the desired effect. Olech and the other men lean in toward McDaniel, laughing, nodding.

Across the table, Kevin Johnson discreetly declines dessert. Johnson has a round, kind face and earnest eyes behind his wire-framed glasses. The 44-year-old former Army sergeant leans on a cane, necessary because of the pain diabetes causes in his feet. During the first Gulf War, he worked as an operating-room tech at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He took a break from the service, then enlisted in the Army National Guard to serve in Iraq. In total, he gave 18 years to the military. Now he lives in Minnesota and is unable to work because of his disabilities.

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