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an AP biology class' worth of Latin plant names, bust out a self-penned country song, or detail plot lines of the four unpublished children's books he's written.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.