Finley, meanwhile, was set to hunt gators two years ago while recovering from his shrapnel wounds back in Kentucky. Then he got into a car accident and woke up with both legs paralyzed.

"I'm the most unluckiest person that is alive," he tells the group.

As the sun sets, the group of vets follows McDaniel to a boat launch on the waterway, which winds north of Lake Okeechobee through 12 Central Florida counties. They get a quick tutorial on gator killing from Duane Wallace, a volunteer and master guide. The men have a choice between shooting with a crossbow or a giant spear that looks lifted from Dances With Wolves.

John McDaniel says hunting swamp lizards is therapeutic.
Colby Katz
John McDaniel says hunting swamp lizards is therapeutic.

The men set out in separate airboats, with Amira in the lead. His guide quickly gets word they've had a bite. The low 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 a bullet when rammed into the gator's head. With a loud pop, he finishes the job. "Hooah!" he shouts. "That bitch be mine!" The enormous lizard's eyes are still blinking, so Amira inserts a small knife into the creature's forehead and wiggles it around to scramble the brain. The gator's eyes close.

The next afternoon, in a hardscrabble West Melbourne subdivision, the wounded warriors gather in a volunteer's back-yard garage.

They've gathered three bloody gator carcasses — Johnson's, Olech's, and Amira's trophies. The corpses are stretched out on tables where a car would have been parked. The mottled hides are surrounded by tool boxes, a saw table, and a beer fridge. The sun is too bright, and the smell of dead reptile is nauseating.

McDaniel is freshly caffeinated, chatting with everyone, back-slapping, puffing on a cigar. Horn, who failed to bag a gator, admits he's 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 just about him. Before the weekend is over, he talks to McDaniel about joining Wounded Warriors as a volunteer and running his own fishing trips for vets in South Carolina.

Back near the garage, the exhausted, exuberant troops linger in the sun, swapping stories. They divide the gator meat equally among themselves, regardless of who was victorious that day. Laughing, telling tales of a mission accomplished, they are a unit again, a brotherhood. And for now, that is enough.

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