In the Heart of Darkness: Veterans Hunt Alligators to Heal the Wounds of War
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."
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.
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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.
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.
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.
"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.
A sliver of moon rises in the sky. The boat roars over undulating lily pads, gliding through marsh and reeds. Riding high off Amira's victory, it's natural for the men to think the next kill will come quickly.
Swartley turns on his headlamp, scanning the water for eyes. He pauses, leans over, and snatches a gator — no more than three feet long — from the water with his bare hands. Another of the guides clamps a hand over the lizard's jaws, displaying him to Finley. The guide is pulling back the gator's eyelids, explaining something about anatomy, when it suddenly wriggles out of his grasp.
A deadly swamp beast is now flopping around the boat in front of a half-paralyzed man. Finley's leg begins to shake.
Seconds crawl by. The lizard splashes back into the water.
"Well, anyway...," Swartley says.
Off again they glide into inky water. The older hunter in front slides an arm protectively around Finley's shoulder, just as he'd done with Amira.
As the darkness deepens, the men fall into a waiting routine. Hopes rise and fall with the whirring of the airboat motor. Every time the boat slows, there's a flurry of expectation. They cast a line, splash bait into the water. Someone hands Finley a crossbow, and he leans forward to aim. Then, nothing.
The gators are either too small or too far away to merit a shot. By early October, the gators on this river have already been hunted for a few weeks. Plus, there's a cold front moving in tonight. The animals are scarce, skittish, and reluctant to rise to the surface of the water.
Swartley cuts the motor. In the sudden quiet, the swamp smells mossy and sweet. Deftly, the captain leans down and plucks another baby gator, less than a foot long, from the muck. Everyone gets to touch the clammy skin, feel the warm pulse. The lizard's jaws are cute and Kermit-sized.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life," Finley marvels.
"Now where's its mama?" someone wonders.
Anxiety wraps itself like a fog around the men. Did Finley curse himself with all that talk of being unlucky? How long would they have to wait to find out?
Swartley slows, plays a recording of gator hatchling calls in an effort to attract their mothers. The animals sound like vinyl rips on a turntable. Bullfrogs grunt back.
Finley chews his dip. The airboat men discuss wind and motors. They joke about ordering a pizza. Stars pulse in the cold sky.
As 11 p.m. approaches, they try again. They throw the bait out in front, as Swartley suggests. Finley leans forward expectantly. But the gator slips away.
"I had him," Swartley says mournfully.
Finley's right leg starts shaking. He presses down to steady it.
"How 'bout if we just catch one by hand and put it in your pocket, buddy?" Swartley asks.
Finley is quiet.
"We can hunt till 10 o'clock in the morning," the mate offers.
"We can, but we ain't going to," Finley responds.
Stomachs growl, and bladders threaten to burst. One of the crew mates complains he's got "bleacher ass." But when McDaniel asks if they should call it a night, the men protest. Nobody can stomach sending a crippled war hero home without a trophy.
Hours pass. The men dip their tobacco. Finley checks his cell phone.
Swartley is making sucking sounds, trying to imitate the gators again.
"Dagummit," he mutters.
Sometime after 1 a.m., Finley begins to nod off. The airboat men nudge him awake to take an occasional shot at a flash of mottled skin in the water. Otherwise, they are quiet, huddled against the wind.
The next afternoon, in a dusty West Melbourne subdivision, the wounded warriors gather in a volunteer's backyard garage. Three bloody gator carcasses — Johnson's, Olech's, and Amira's trophies — are stretched out on tables where a car would have been parked. The mottled hides are surrounded by toolboxes, a saw table, a beer fridge. The sun is too bright, and the smell of dead reptile is nauseating.
McDaniel, "the colonel," is freshly caffeinated, chatting with everyone, back-slapping, puffing on a cigar. Olech is skinning his gator. Amira is packing pink globs of meat into plastic bags. Johnson is snapping pictures of a gator head with his cell phone.
Horn sits on a chair behind the skinning tables, looking exhausted and sullen. He stayed out until 9:30 a.m. without catching anything. Now Horn is squabbling with Amira, talking about going out hunting again tonight. Someone reminds him that he'd said the trip wasn't about killing gators.
Horn shakes his weary head. "Did I say that?"
Finley shows up late to the garage, having crashed for five hours at the hotel. He gave up his hunt empty-handed at about 4:30 a.m. But now, for the first time all weekend, he has color in his cheeks. There's a Big Mac in his lap. He's a little disappointed but surprisingly cheerful about spending ten hours in the swamp without snaring a gator.
"It was just as cool catching 'em and bringing 'em on the boat as it would've been shootin' 'em," he declares.
Nearby, Johnson is bursting with pride. At 2:30 a.m., he harpooned the last gator of the hunt. He's still buzzing, insisting this taste of victory was more exhilarating than anything he felt in Iraq. "I got to hunt with soldiers and the guys that care about the soldiers," he says. "To me, it was a rush. I may only ever do this once in my life."
After the hunt, Johnson and Olech stayed up talking at the campsite in the swamp. Now Johnson can't wait for his cell phone to charge so he can text a picture of the gator to his son. He plans to have the gator's skull mounted. In its mouth, he will hang his dog tags from Iraq.
As the afternoon lengthens, Horn softens. He stops sulking and joins his comrades in skinning and bagging the gator meat. Days later, he will admit he was frustrated. "I don't like being defeated, and those alligators defeated me," he says. "I can't sit here and say I wasn't disappointed."
But Horn also realizes the trip wasn't about just him. Before the weekend ends, he talks to McDaniel about joining Wounded Warriors as a volunteer, running his own fishing trips for vets in South Carolina.
Back at the garage in Melbourne, the exhausted, exuberant troops linger in the sun swapping stories. They divide the gator meat equally among those who were victorious and those who were not. Laughing, telling tales of a mission accomplished, they are a unit again, a brotherhood. And for now, that is enough.
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