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Donald Stewart,a psychologist in Cocoa Beach who treats veterans, says kayaking, fishing, hiking, and other outdoor trips have been "very, very successful" in helping the men recover. "With PTSD — shooting guns — ultimately, could it create flashbacks? Sure it could create flashbacks," Stewart says. "But if an individual's grown up hunting, it may also bring them comfort."
Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist and expert on treating trauma in Vietnam veterans, adds that the bonding experience among the veterans is key. "I hold the belief that recovery happens only in community," he says. "This is almost always a community of other combat-wounded veterans."
For lunch at the airboat clubhouse, volunteers bring out a spread of swamp delicacies — barbecued wild hog, fried frog legs, and gator cakes. As the plates fill up and the men sit at long cafeteria tables, McDaniel asks the veterans to stand and introduce themselves.
A short, wisecracking guy leaning on a cane volunteers to go first. Greg Amira, 42, stands at the front of the room and recites the Hollywood-worthy biography he's told many times before. On 9/11, he was working as a vice president for Morgan Stanley. His office was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. When the plane hit, he was on the phone with his wife. "Everyone got rocked to their knees," he remembers.
Amira began evacuating with his coworkers, but he couldn't ignore the swarms of injured people. "I'm Army-trained. My dad's a cop. I know what I'm doing." He says he ran into the lobby of the North Tower and helped rescue a woman from an elevator.
Then the South Tower fell. Amira saw sparks and flame. He passed out. A firefighter shook him awake, but Amira was afraid to leave. Finally, he made it outside in time to see the North Tower begin to collapse. Debris hit him. It's the last thing he remembers clearly.
He was rescued with an elbow bone poking out of his skin, "ranting and raving" about terrorists and other fears. For both physical and mental reasons, he says social security considered him disabled. But he remained in the Army Reserves and four years later was called up to serve as a special-operations captain doing economic development work in Iraq.
In January 2007, his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device. The truck in front of him exploded and flipped into a drainage ditch. Amira and a comrade jumped out to rescue the injured men, swallowing sewage and chemical waste in the murky water. The pollution burned Amira's esophagus and left him with the voice of a lifelong smoker. His face was mangled by flying debris, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He and his colleague were able to save everyone but the company commander.
After delivering the short version of this tale, Amira takes his seat. Before anyone in the room can digest it, Horn stands up.
He rattles off his story in military code: "Took an RPG to the window... TBI, PTSD, two herniated discs." He came home. "Then it got hard," he says.
Around him, the airboat club is tense and hushed. Tables of men, wives, and kids put down their barbecue-stained napkins and hold their breath.
Olech, quiet and matter-of-fact as ever, rises from his seat across the table. His voice is startlingly calm. He was an Army ranger for seven years, deployed four times to Iraq and three to Afghanistan. The shooting came on his sixth tour. He gestures to his left shoulder to illustrate the wounds — one bullet to his biceps, the other fracturing his shoulder and traveling down to pierce his lung.
Kevin Johnson heaves to his feet, wearing a T-shirt that says, "I listen to the voices in my tackle box." In 2005, he was driving a truck at a guard check point in Tikrit when missiles blasted the site. A helicopter evacuated him from the war zone with traumatic brain injury and two herniated discs.
Now he uses the same short-hand military code as Horn: "TBI," "two herniated discs," "got hit in Tikrit."
Then the chatty Midwestern dad pauses, his voice thick. People at the far end of the table can see the mist blurring his glasses. "This is kind of tear-jerking for me," he says. "Thanks for having me."
Finley, sitting in his wheelchair at the end of the table, is the last to address the group. A military brat who grew up in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he joined the Army in 2005. In Afghanistan, he drove a truck — "I was from Kentucky, and I drove everything." Until a rocket tore the back of his Humvee. Despite the shrapnel injury, he could still walk on crutches when he left the war zone in 2008.
Two years ago, he signed up for this gator hunt. But then he was in a car accident. He doesn't remember anything about the crash, just waking up with his legs paralyzed. "I'm the most unluckiest person that is alive," he says.
The rest of the afternoon passes in a lull of full stomachs and cold beer. In the scratchy grass outside the clubhouse, Finley parks his wheelchair in the sun, trying to recuperate from his night of partying. Horn leans across the lunch table to share one of his proudest war stories. A month before he was injured, one of the police trucks in his group struck an IED. Shrapnel hit a police officer in the femoral artery and tore off his ankle. With blood pouring from his leg, the man was in danger of bleeding to death. Horn patched him up and stabilized him until help arrived.