Military Vets Heal PTSD by Capturing Burmese Pythons in the Everglades
Illustration by Jon Proctor
The python -- a speckled four-footer who'll go down in the books as "Ibzan" -- twists viciously in Tom Rahill's gloved hand like a downed power line. Rahill sucks in his gut, stretches out his arm, and grips the snake's tail. Wiggling furiously, the angry animal releases a shower of foul-smelling musk. As Rahill likes to say, that's the smell of victory.
"Come to papa!" he says, his smile buried under a thick beard. The snake quickly burns out its energy and lies docile in its captor's hands. Rahill bags it in a pillowcase.
A fat full moon bobs against gauzy clouds in the eastern sky above Chekika, a stretch of the Everglades west of Krome Avenue in Homestead, while Rahill explains, "This was hatched this year. He's feisty too." Just an hour after the sun has slipped under, Chekika looks like a Walking Dead landscape: cracked pavement, abandoned ranger stations, gurgling swamps, and nail beds of sawgrass running to the dark horizon.
Ibzan here had been squiggling along, soaking up the heat clinging to the road, when the headlights of Rahill's Ford Fiesta caught him. Rahill named this one -- the 113th python he's caught in 2014 -- Ibzan because he's moving through the alphabet and landed on "I." "I like the barbarian names." The next two snakes Rahill grabs later in the night will be "Jaasu" and "Kadmieo."
The snake hunter himself looks like someone who stomped out of the bush to a soundtrack of dueling banjos. Stout and burly at age 57, Rahill has spring-blue eyes stuck in a tan face and long locks that are usually tied in a ponytail. A talker, words constantly whistle through his mouth -- double time if he's had coffee. He'll clog your ear with an AP biology class' worth of Latin plant names, bust out a self-penned country song, or detail plot lines of the four unpublished children's books he's written. But for a moment, the Plantation native is uncharacteristically quiet, all business as he futzes with a handheld GPS to get the exact coordinates of Ibzan's last stand. Ultimately, he will drop off the snake in a bin, to later be euthanized by scientists from the University of Florida, who perform studies on the python bodies.
"Is this cool?" he finally blurts. "How many birds and mammals did we save getting this dude?"
Most nights of the week, after Rahill punches the clock at his day job as a tech consultant, he comes out here looking for snakes. Since the ballooning Burmese python population has been killing off indigenous species, park officials have green-lit approved snake hunters. But Rahill isn't a solo act. He keeps company with a crowd of tough-looking but quiet young men who have experienced months in desert foxholes, days trapped on a bridge in a war zone, and constant shelling from unseen enemies. For four years, Rahill has been bringing military vets out to clear swamp trails and hunt invasive snakes. He calls this crew the Swamp Apes.
The dozen or so former grunts who come out with Rahill are struggling to shift gears from war to peacetime. Men like Purple Heart recipient Alex Nunez, who saw combat straight out of an action film and now always wears a ball cap that says "Disturbed Veteran"; Jose Rodriguez, a cigar-chomping 33-year-old who was in the leading charge during the invasion of Iraq; and Jorge Martinez, a stocky 31-year-old former Marine mechanic whose nights were filled with dreams of mortar fire. For them, Rahill's expeditions help ease the transition. His project tapped into their mission-oriented mindset; the wilderness required their military training; the snake hunting reignited their adrenaline valves.
"If you're a veteran and you need some tweaking, where else would you go? To the Kansas prairie to pluck an invasive daisy?" Rahill asks. "Or would you rather go to the Everglades National Park?"
Later they'd call it the Mother's Day Massacre.
In May 2004, a convoy of U.S. Marines ground through the dust of Basra heading for a nearby bridge. Insurgents had been using it to duck into the Iraqi city with weapons, so the two American tanks and four Hummers were tasked with holding the position. Alex Nunez was in the rear Hummer, riding shotgun with the map, while the radio in his hands squawked with updates from the rest of the convoy.
The handsome then-24-year-old Homestead native was already a decorated vet. He'd completed a first tour during the 2003 invasion. American forces were sent to war when it was suspected that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The initial invasion took three weeks to topple the Iraqi government and send its leaders into hiding. For the next three months -- while the Iraq military dissolved, chaos reigned, and nascent insurgent groups started swiping at the Americans -- Nunez was in a desert foxhole. The closest he got to a shower was a couple of baby wipes. One rainy night, a rocket-propelled grenade landed near Nunez while he was hauling water around camp. The mud muffled most of the blast, but he was hit with shrapnel and earned a Purple Heart, the medal awarded to soldiers wounded in combat.
Tom Rahill, a lifelong outdoorsman, thought grueling experiences in the swamp might help veterans keep their minds off war.
Photo by Alfredo Romero
In 2004, however, the fighting was different. In December 2003, Saddam had been captured in an underground hole. No WMDs had been found. Iraq was now leaderless and crawling with various insurgent groups waiting to light up American forces with sneak attacks. Despite his armored Hummer's heavy .50-caliber and M240 machine guns, and rocket and grenade launchers, Nunez knew he and four other soldiers in the vehicle had little chance against an improvised explosive device (IED).
Their vehicles threaded through town, a customary three car lengths separating each. Then, as the lead tank inched up on the bridge, it was engulfed in an explosion. Bullets began nailing the convoy. Soldiers blasted back. Nunez ordered his Marines to wrench survivors out of the burning tank. He called for air support. A Blackhawk helicopter dropped in and was able to whisk off some of the injured. But the rest were pinned.
For three nights, Nunez and the other Marines were trapped in their vehicles. Mortars whistled in every 20 minutes. Gunfire was constant. The Marines had to piss in their food bags. If they got out, they'd get shot.
On the third day, the five remaining vehicles made a break for it and returned to their base. A nearby convoy trying to escape a similar situation had been hit by a suicide bomber. As Nunez's convoy wheeled away from the bridge, AK-47 rounds carved the air. As always, Nunez's vehicle covered the rear. From the upfront passenger seat, the corporal watched the houses and alleys speed past. Then Nunez, up in the roof turret, spotted two men, both dressed in black. One was talking into a walkie-talkie. The other was on his knee pointing the business end of a shoulder-mounted RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade, at Nunez's Hummer. They were so close he could see the wet glimmer of their eyes.
"3 o'clock! 3 o'clock!" Nunez screamed, pulling at the leg of his .50-cal machine gunner . The heavy weapon swung around, the rounds chewing apart the nearby houses and alley. "The RPG didn't go off, so I guess we got him," Nunez says today.
When the Marine returned from duty, the image of the black-clad men aiming the RPG his way wouldn't leave his mind. It was just one of the issues he found himself swimming against back home. When it finally drove him to a posttraumatic stress disorder support group in the late 2000s, he befriended fellow former Marines Jorge Martinez and Jose Rodriguez, guys with almost identical backstories and similar war experiences and home-front aftershocks.
For all three, the military had been an express elevator out of an aimless life in Homestead. Nunez had grown up without a father figure; the Marines were what he hoped would mold him into a man.
Rodriguez had a dad -- he "was a migrant worker," says the tall guy whose smile is usually wrapped around a cigar. "He would go north to North Carolina, Michigan. He'd pick tobacco, cherries -- anything you can plant, he'd pick. My mom would always cry, 'I don't want you to work in the fields; I want something better.'"
Rodriguez was a self-professed "knucklehead" in high school, coasting for three years on D's and F's before turning them around to A's and B's for his senior stretch at Homestead Senior High. College wasn't really an option, so he figured he might as well try the military. But after he failed the academic entrance exam, the Navy and Air Force recruiters with whom he'd been talking bailed. Only his Marine recruiter kept encouraging him. It took another two tries, but Rodriguez passed the test.
Swamp Apes paddled down the Bear Lake Canal in Flamingo over Veterans Day weekend.
Photo by Alfredo Romero
Rodriguez was sitting in Kuwait with the rest of the U.S. Second Battalion Eighth Marine Regiment in spring 2003 when President George W. Bush had gone on television to convince the American people of the need to go to war. When the firing started in March, Rodriguez was among the first troops to pour into Iraq. The first time he saw live fire in the desert, the sky crossed with Cobra attack helicopters, he had one thought: "What is my Mexican ass doing over here?" Right away, he saw major action in the Battle of Nasiriyah, a weeklong dogfight that began when a U.S. convoy took a wrong turn and was ambushed by Iraqi forces. Thirty Americans were killed in the fighting, as were more than 350 Iraqi soldiers.
In combat, Rodriguez wasn't scared. The Marine training works fear out of you, he says. After a while, it was simply routine. He'd be sitting in a foxhole bullshitting with his fellow Marines while rockets zoomed overhead. "You get numb to it," he says.
Unfortunately, you get numb to home too. Rodriguez had left for the Marines in 2002, eight months after his girlfriend gave birth to his first kid -- a daughter. He didn't see her first steps, didn't hear her first words. It got so that his whole world was inverted: When his leaves Stateside were up, he would think of the war as home. "I guess it's time to go back home, time to go back to the Big Sandbox."
Homestead's slim options also led Jorge Martinez to the Big Sandbox. In 2000, when he was getting ready for his senior year at South Dade Senior High, he got a call from a Marine recruiter. Martinez had no postgraduation plans, so he was interested in the pitch. Face-to-face, the military man explained that the Marines were the most elite fighting force in the world.
"It became a challenge, like if I can join them, then I'm pretty badass," Martinez says.
Didn't hurt when the recruiter showed the testosterone-juiced teen a picture of the Marines' dress blues and promised he'd never have a problem snagging girls again.
He joined in 2001. In high school, Martinez's mother had given him a beater Cadillac DeVille. Nothing worked -- the windows, the air conditioner; sometimes it wouldn't even start. The teen was always rooting under the hood with his dad's tools. So when he suited up as a Marine, he decided to become a heavy-equipment mechanic.
In Iraq, Martinez was stationed at a base next to a massive highway strung between Fallujah and Baghdad. His job was to keep the power supply running for an air control tower and radar. If they cut out, aircraft could be lost over the desert. The base was was constantly pounded with enemy fire. In a seven-month period, American forces there were shelled or mortared more than 250 times. They never knew when it was coming, and there was nothing they could do when it began but take cover.
Martinez was once in a canvas tent making small talk on the phone with his high school sweetheart. Then in the background, he heard a faint clump. Seconds later, another -- closer. Martinez kept chatting through a third, closer noise. The fourth mortar hit so close that a nearby table jumped off the ground. While sirens screamed, Martinez slammed down the phone, struggled into his flak jacket and helmet, and hid under the table, waiting for the attack to quit.
"I felt helpless," he explains today. "I couldn't shoot back. I'm just sitting in it, waiting for it to fucking get me."
Despite the constant anxiety, Martinez enjoyed his time overseas. "It gives you this sense -- I'm a little part of this huge machine that's moving," he explains today. "I'm a little part, and I'm going to do my best to keep it moving forward. And you get the feeling your job is needed. It gives you a sense of satisfaction."
Martinez, Rodriguez, and Nunez all landed back home around 2005 and 2006. They hadn't known one another abroad, but they were all struggling with the same symptoms. Instead of connecting with friends from home, the three Marines each became isolated. They drank. Got in fights. Cycled through moods. Martinez got arrested for disorderly conduct. Rodriguez was pinched for a DUI.
Civilian life had none of the high stakes of war. Overseas, if a soldier had to be somewhere at 2 o'clock, he was there at 2 o'clock; if you said you were going to get something done, you got it done. "If not, you had your NCO [noncommissioned officer] in your face, screaming about how you could have gotten your whole fucking squad killed," Rodriguez says. "There's no lines or gray areas."
But back home, people slacked off on their jobs, treated timetables as no big deal. It was infuriating.
And then there was the loneliness. In the Marines, they'd been constantly surrounded by other soldiers, guys willing to give their lives for one another. Stateside, people didn't have those same blood-and-sweat bonds. And they didn't understand. "It's the first time I'd felt anything like that," Nunez says of the emptiness.
The mosquitoes came in woolly, buzzy blankets. The July temperature skyrocketed into the triple digits, with 100 percent humidity. Don't even ask about the heat index.
But there was Tom Rahill, sweating through work clothes, goggles, and face mask, sitting on a canoe, hacking away at overgrowth. The Bear Lake Canal, a shit-smelling finger of water in Flamingo, was so hair-netted with vines and branches, it was impassable in 2009. Rahill was putting his body through torture to keep his thoughts from grazing into painful places.
"To soothe my aching heart, I would work, and then just go to the Everglades for a couple of days," he says. "Just stay out there."
Former Marine George Martinez, left, was the first vet to connect with Rahill's brand of wilderness therapy.
Photo by Alfredo Romero
Rahill was born and raised around upstate New York in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. A skinny, asthmatic kid who always had stones, sticks, and bones stuck in his pants pockets from his hours hiking and fishing, he felt a deep connection with the outdoors. Nature was relief from a stormy home life. Rahill says he moved out at age 17. "I love my father; he was a charming Irish drunk, but he decided to kick me out of the house."
Although he was a high school dropout who never sniffed a college campus, Rahill was an autodidact, constantly filling his head with books and ideas. He began working as a tech consultant for companies in Manhattan. But instead of living full-time in the city, Rahill's home was a rustic cabin in Sterling Forest, an hour northwest of the city, with no running water or outhouse. He commuted once a week or so into the city. With Henry David Thoreau clanging around his head, Rahill was planning on disappearing into the wilderness out in Montana.
Instead, he fell in love. His family introduced him to a young religious woman from Brooklyn whom Rahill's father had met on a city bus. "She was trying to save his soul, and he was appreciating her nice Haitian bubble butt," Rahill says. The father introduced the woman to his son, and the two were married in 1981. Eventually they moved to Plantation, where they raised a son and a daughter.
But Rahill's happy home life began to wobble in 2008. His wife, a PhD in social work, accepted a teaching position at a college in Arkansas. Due to his IT consulting work in South Florida, he couldn't go along. His kids were grown. A science club he had belonged to for years disbanded. Then, while she was out of state, Rahill's wife was assaulted by a home intruder. She survived the attack, but Rahill was racked by grief.
Then a friend asked Rahill to help clear the Bear Lake canal and a nearby trail. Conditions in the bush were nearly unbearable.
Nearly. Rahill found that the hours hacking through vines actually helped clear his thoughts. The physically demanding work and the beauty of the Everglades were distraction enough to keep the sadness at bay. "When you're in love, that separation, it's freaking brutal," he explains. "But there's not a lot of room for self-pity when you are engaged in something that requires your whole focus for safety purposes."
Rahill wondered whether grueling work in the Glades would help others. His thoughts turned to his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, both members of the Army's 82nd Airborne. Qualities that made for a successful trail-clearing crew -- situational awareness, self-reliance, a sense of mission objective, respect for a chain of command -- were shared by members of the military, Rahill thought.
"It led me to think that this would be great for veterans," he says. "They ought to have some kind of program that lets these guys know there's still life out there." He pitched his idea around, and the recreational therapy department at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Homestead was happy to send vets his way.
Rahill had also learned to catch snakes with his science-club buddies. Around 2008, he joined Everglades National Park's python eradication program. Because the nonindigenous Burmese was putting a chokehold on Florida's native species, the park allowed certain approved outdoorsmen to help capture the critters in the park.
Python hunting -- a barehanded (but gloved) man-versus-beast contest -- was exhilarating. Maybe, Rahill figured, vets who missed the adrenaline whoosh of combat would connect with such a primitive wrestling match.
Jorge Martinez didn't even wait to get home to make the call. After walking out of the VA hospital with Tom Rahill's phone number, the former Marine climbed into his truck and dialed. His head was too much of a mess to wait. It was 2009, and Martinez was working as a mechanic at the Port of Miami. But even four years after leaving the corps, Martinez was still struggling with the aftershocks of war.
That sense of purpose he had enjoyed overseas evaporated when he returned home. Instead of working for the war effort, he was fixing vehicles at the port, helping the company "get back on track so they can get back to making their millions of dollars," he says. An attitude started creeping into his disposition at work. He had constant fights with his boss. Worse, he wasn't sleeping. At night, his head was filled with dreams about attacks from unknown assailants.
Rahill, the Everglades eccentric, invited the young vet out to Flamingo to clear some trails. "He was very timid," Rahill recalls, "very unsure of himself."
Together they hacked and sawed a clearing through the trail. Martinez's old sense of grinding for the greater good was sparkedafresh.
Later, the pythons came into the picture.
Since his first brainstorm for Swamp Apes, Rahill had taken a handful of vets out to clear trails in the Everglades. They didn't click with the work and didn't come back. But in Martinez, Rahill found his first willing protégé. He decided to shift the game plan to pythons.
Rahill invited Martinez to go snake hunting with him.
"I really didn't want to go," Martinez admits. He was cool with clearing bush -- but not with wrestling with pythons. "He convinced me, but in my mind, I thought that if anything happens, I'm not going to touch a snake. That's him." Eventually, Rahill baby-stepped Martinez through the basics of snake handling. The Marine was still comfortable only with Rahill around. Snagging a snake on his own would be taking it to the next level. That took four years.
One day in February 2013, Martinez was rushing out to meet Rahill in Flamingo. He resolved it was time. In fact, he thought, if a snake appears on the road now, I'll get it.
As if on cue, Martinez slammed the brakes of his truck before a five-footer slithering across the road. Without gloves or a bag, he went after it. After 30 minutes of chasing it around the bush and even under the wheel well of his car, Martinez got his hands on the snake. It slowly wrapped up the length of his forearm. Soon he was speeding down the road looking for Rahill. When the car bashed over a speed bump, Martinez's first solo catch began vice-gripping his arm.
In the year since, Martinez has become an evangelist for the Swamp Apes. Through PTSD therapy sessions, he's forged deep friendships with guys like Rodriguez and Nunez. It wasn't long after meeting that he got them out to the Everglades hunting snakes.
"That same thing I was going through, I see it in them," he says. "I'm trying to find a leadership role. There is no one set formula to fix the PTSD. It's going to take some time, some bonding, and some hard-core python hunting."
On Rodriguez's first snake hunt, he was out with Rahill when they both spotted a snake. The old pro went in to grab it, then pulled back. "He wanted me to get it," Rodriguez says. "I was infantry, so I was more on the wild side in the Marine Corps. I was new to the snakes, but I just grabbed it. It was a thrill."
On a recent clear November night, Martinez, now a snake-hunting vet, is creeping his truck down the roads in Chekika, eyes alert for pythons. Riding shotgun is Rodriguez. In the back seat sits another former Marine named Louis. Rodriguez and Louis have each been out with the Swamp Apes a handful of times.
"This is a source of therapy for us," Louis says. "Riding around, even if we don't see anything, it forces you to be patient. That helps for anybody who has anger issues or is quick to react. You can't control nature, so just shut the fuck up and keep riding around."
He goes on: "And when you actually catch one, the adrenaline rush is almost like being back on the battlefield. Almost. Not quite."
Martinez claims to be proof the program works. Now, he dreams about snakes. "It's a lot better than dreaming about other stuff."
You guys don't mind if I shoot you, do you?" a volunteer with a long-lens Nikon asks. About a dozen Swamp Apes and others are scattered around a little lip of rock on Bear Lake, catching their breath and scratching at fresh mosquito bites. Alex Nunez sits on a canoe, his "Disturbed Veteran -- Stay Away" cap pulled tight over his eyes. The camera guy stares at him and a few other veterans.
"As long as it's only a camera," someone answers.
A smile passes through the group. "I got to remember who I'm talking to," the cameraman says before snapping more shots.
It's a broiling Saturday afternoon in November, Veterans Day weekend, and Rahill is leading the Swamp Apes and some other volunteers on a canoe trek. Rahill is clutching a machete, clearly enjoying the expedition.
Rahill hopes to develop the Swamp Apes into a nationwide organization that he'll call the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance. And yes, he's already cooked up a handshake. He envisions a South Florida compound. "I want to have a great room, barrack, guest quarters. I want to have a shop, a state-of-the-art veterinary facility. I want to have a zoo where we can have rehabilitated animals for learning purposes. And I want this to be available to the powers that be like the University of Florida."
Of course, the main roadblock is money. Right now, Rahill hefts most of the Swamp Apes' expenses -- flashlights, gloves, gas -- himself, while trying to hoist himself out of a five-figure personal debt.
Regardless, he's adamant. "What we are going to be doing and expanding, with the last breath of my body, is to give the veterans a wonderful adventure that is so compelling that it takes their mind off of some of the emotional issues they're dealing with."
He admits that as much as he connects with his crew over opposite ends of a thrashing ten-foot python, he isn't a vet and can't totally relate. "I've had guys open up to me, and I say, 'Wow. Thanks for your service.' It's going to do a little bit of good. But I want therapists in here. I want them out here getting funky and dirty with the vets."
Back on Bear Lake, the talk turns to a topic everyone has experience with.
"I won't lie, I laughed when he came back at first," the wife of one vet tells a group. "One time, something exploded in our oven."
"I was in Kuwait, so I didn't see anything really," her husband explains. "But a month after getting back, something exploded and I hit the deck."
"Those balloons that pop at fairs?" another vet offers. "Those got me a couple of times when I got back."
"So," Rahill laughs loudly, "you were like, Orville Redenbacher -- hit the deck! Aunt Jemima! Hit the deck!"
Rahill's bit of comedy shakes loose laughs throughout the group -- except for Louis, who stands stone-faced. "That shit there ain't actually funny."
Sheets of Sunday rain are slamming the roof of VFW Post 4127 in Homestead. Inside, drops worm through the ceiling and splash down next to a half-killed pitcher of Amber Bock. The slow, methodical drip dies amid the shouting, televised football, and the smack of darts striking the board. Martinez, Rodriguez, and Nunez are fresh off a Fireball shot and are currently engaged in a time-honored tradition: shit talk.
A white-haired middle-aged guy in a U.S. Navy sweater stands with the Marines. "We call them jarheads for a reason," he says. "They're impervious to common sense. I was a sailor. They'll always be Marines."
"Hey, what happened to you in the Philippines?" Nunez says.
"I got stabbed."
"In a drinking establishment."
"In your butt!" the Marines all shouted.
An unlit cigar points out of Rodriguez's mouth as he cracks up with the rest. Nunez, his head capped with his "Disturbed Veteran" hat, pours another beer. Martinez, who's commander of the VFW post, is running around making last-minute preparations for tomorrow's Veterans Day parade through Homestead.
For these vets, PTSD isn't something they'll wake up one morning cured of. They'll likely be in support groups for many years. It's been about eight years since Martinez and Rodriguez returned from Iraq; both are taking classes at Miami-Dade College, and Nunez has his own pool-cleaning business. They all go to group therapy still. But the Swamp Apes have swung into an important place in all their lives -- it's a substitute for the action they saw -- and miss -- overseas.
In Iraq, the geopolitical clusterfuck continues. The elected government has cracked up into sectarian puzzle pieces of Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds; the so-called Islamic State that spilled in from war-torn Syria now controls wide swaths of the country. Much of what these Marines fought for has been peeled back. But the region's problems don't creep much into the Marines' thinking today. "We were just trying to help people," Nunez says. And now, they're trying to help themselves.
When the laughter dies down, the war stories come out again. Alex Nunez again unwraps the story of the Mother's Day Massacre and his time in Iraq.
"I was always in the last vehicle, to make sure no one was left behind," he says. Then he quickly turns to the recent Swamp Apes' canoe trip. "Did you see I did the same thing on Saturday? I was the last canoe. It was the old training kicking back in."
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