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His humble voice swells with pride as he discusses his favorite subject: family. He gripes good-naturedly about driving his daughter to college forensics classes and brags about buying his son a car. Then he mentions that his 16-year-old son wants to join the military.
"No parent wants to see their child go to war," he says. "I've lost friends... I can't imagine what it'd be like to be a parent and lose a child."
The next morning, Gary Horn blinks the sleep out of his eyes and pushes away a breakfast plate of stale toast and shriveled motel Danish. It's 8:30 a.m., and the 26-year-old just got back to the motel two hours ago. After leaving the American Legion post, he and Finley stayed out all night drinking, swapping stories, strumming a guitar.
Horn's face is beefy and pale, his ginger hair disheveled, his lip scabbed. A mosaic of tattoos covers his bare arms — Purple Heart medal, Air Force combat medal, the symbol of his E5 staff sergeant rank, the Police Mentor Team Viper logo, the Army combat medic badge. He has a slow, South Carolina smile.
"I grew up in one of those towns, when you leave, it's already minus-one on the sign, it's so small," he says.
After high school, Horn joined the Air Force to get a job in medicine. He became a combat medic and trained Afghan police officers to do the same. One of his favorite photos from the war is of him arm-wrestling a grinning Afghan schoolboy.
In 2008, Horn was driving a Humvee on patrol north of Kandahar. Just after sunset, Taliban fighters ambushed him, launching a rocket-propelled grenade through the window of his truck. The pressure blew a hole in Horn's eardrum. Shattered glass lodged in his arm. He'd later learn he had herniated discs and a traumatic brain injury. Yet he navigated the truck to safety and kept chasing his Taliban attackers until 4 o'clock in the morning.
He was sent home to an early retirement, and that's when things got tough. In his town near Clemson, South Carolina, there is no Army base, no Veterans Administration hospital. Few people can relate to what Horn's been through. "When you're talking to somebody that doesn't understand, that hasn't been there — it's like you're talking to a brick wall," he says. "They don't understand how surreal it is. To them, it's just another scene in a movie."
Nightmares haunted him. During the war, someone was always on guard while he slept. At home, that comfort was gone. To pass the long, sleepless nights, Horn taught himself to play pool competitively. When the sun came up, he struggled to sit through college classes — his back ached; he couldn't concentrate. He recently switched to a technical college to pursue a paramedic's license.
And he flew down here, to this waterfront motel near Melbourne, to spend a weekend hunting alligators with other combat-wounded men. "You get to come and share your stories with other vets," he explains. "It's like a brother bond that never can be broken."
As for killing gators, Horn says: "That was a big incentive."
When he steps outside the motel around 9 a.m., a swarm of motorcycles glints and snorts in the sun. The America Legion Riders are revving up to escort the veterans to an airboat club on the St. Johns River. Many of the men, with their long hair tucked in helmets, are Vietnam vets. Between them and the younger soldiers lies a generation of guilt and mistreatment. "These guys are, in my eyes, the heroes," Horn says.
McDaniel, standing outside chatting with some of the riders, expresses a similar sentiment. "They're just quietly healing by accepting and welcoming these guys home," he says.
Turning to one of the riders, McDaniel's megawatt smile widens. "Best therapy there is: chucking primitive weapons at swamp lizards."
By 10 o'clock, volunteers from the Brevard County Airboat Association have begun preparing lunch, roasting wild hog on a spit. A small troop of Boy Scouts is on hand to salute the wounded warriors, and a young girl lilts through the national anthem. Then the airboats roar off for a brief orientation ride through the river.
Slashing through towering reeds, skimming over lily pads, idling under green canopies of trees, the river does its best impression of an untouched, primordial paradise. The boats pause at a clearing of solid mud beneath arches of live oaks — a campground where the veterans will be able to rest while hunting tonight. It's a historic site, silent except for the chirping of insects. Guides point out dark chunks of Native American pottery buried in the ground.
Wounded Warriors in Action's mission to heal wounded vets through hunting isn't a novel concept, just one that has enjoyed renewed popularity thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For at least two decades, wilderness adventures have been used to heal vets — with Outward Bound hikes, skiing in Colorado, fly-fishing trips in Montana. In the past few years, a wide range of nonprofit groups has also begun taking them bear hunting in West Virginia, pheasant hunting in Pennsylvania, hog hunting in Texas. Although these trips are not included on the Department of Veterans Affairs' official list of treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, the basic healing properties of men tromping through nature together are hard to miss. Experts say this may hold true even when the adventure involves putting deadly weapons in the hands of men scarred by war.