By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"I loved it," he says, his gaze steady, his smile spreading. "I'd go back tomorrow if I could."
Soon the vets drive down the road to a boat launch area, where a performer strums a steel guitar and buckets of beer on ice appear. Amira, who has kept to himself much of the day, grabs a beer and joins the crew at a picnic table. Now living near Tampa, Amira has started his own nonprofit group, WoundedVets.org, and has arranged events where he and other war heroes can enjoy all the perks the Hollywood set offers. Scrolling through his digital camera, he shows reams of pictures of himself at a Bruce Springsteen concert, with Dan Aykroyd, with Mariska Hargitay, on Jimmy Buffett's boat.
Amira is the only vet on this trip who didn't grow up hunting. But he's been doing it a lot since he got out of the war. "It's not so much the hunting part of it that helps; it's meeting the other veterans, talking about your disabilities," he says. "That's what helped me get through it."
Now he's eager to make gator-skin purses for his daughter and fiancée. "I just figured after going to Iraq and hunting humans, you hunt animals, they don't shoot back," he says.
As the sun lowers into the water, the men change into camouflage pants, baseball caps, and long-sleeved shirts. Horn swipes black greasepaint under his eyes.
Wallace, the master gator guide, gives a brief lesson on how to safely kill the beasts. The men have a choice between shooting with a crossbow or a giant spear that looks lifted from Dances With Wolves. Those strong enough to lunge and squat start experimenting with throwing the spears.
Waving a skinning knife, Wallace explains the importance of hitting the gators in a special spot behind their eyes and inserting the knife in the wound to make sure the gator is dead. "They'll twitch, you'll get blood, they'll close their eyes, and then it's gator down," he says.
The veterans climb on to separate airboats, each accompanied by seasoned captains and hunters who have donated hard-to-get alligator-hunting permits. "These guys deserve it, you know," says Dave Poppelein, one of the hunting guides from the Airboat Association. "What they go through for a worthless war — all these guys getting crippled for nothing."
Shortly after 6 p.m., the airboats roar off toward the pink sunset. The men have their mission, their unit, and a common enemy. Capt. Swartley has gotten word that one of his colleagues — dispatched earlier in the evening to cast lines to bait the animals — has a bite. Now one of the veterans will have a chance to take a shot.
Amira's boat takes off first. As it rumbles through the swamp, an older volunteer in the front seat discreetly puts an arm around the veteran's shoulder, holding lightly to Amira's life vest. When sharp reeds jump out of the brush, the man keeps them from swiping Amira's face.
While the sky is still light, the boat steers toward the gator that's chomped its enormous jaws onto the bait. The airboat men tug on the line, pulling it closer. The sun glints blue and gold off the water. Dark eyes rise above the surface.
With the crossbow, Amira takes a clean shot. He laughs and grabs the "bang stick" — a weapon that fires when rammed into the gator's head. With a loud pop, he finishes the job.
"Hoo-ah!" Amira shouts. "That bitch be mine!" And he pops the stick again.
One of the guides pulls the gator up on a hook. The enormous lizard is still blinking its eyes. So Amira inserts a small knife in its forehead, as instructed, and wiggles it around to scramble the brain. The eyes close. A trickle of red oozes from the beast's head.
The gator is huge — ten feet, the hunters later decide. Its scaly brown and green carcass loads down the front of the boat. Blood spills on the deck.
Amira lies down beside the carcass for a photo. He pulls open the sharp jaws to pose with his head in the gator's mouth. "You fuck with us from New York!" he shouts gleefully at the dead animal.
McDaniel, the founder of the warriors group, arrives on another boat to help celebrate the victory. "Good job, buddy. I'm very proud of you," he tells Amira in fatherly tones. "Look at that beast — way to go!"
"It's just the first one. Everybody else is gonna get theirs," Amira says, suddenly diplomatic. He shakes hands with the guides who helped snare the catch. "Gentlemen, thank you so much."
Amira and his trophy prepare to sail back to shore with another crew. The men decide that Finley — "the unluckiest man alive" — should switch to Swartley's boat, which has already been blessed with a kill. Moving swiftly, the crew scoops him out of his seat and hoists him from one deck to the other. He rests with a crossbow in his lap, McDaniel beside him. The hunters cast out another pig lung as bait and settle in to wait.