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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 each other 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 soldier 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. For five years, the group has escorted hundreds of vets every year on trips based on a simple but counterintuitive idea: that the best way to heal men scarred by war is to arm them with deadly weapons and let them loose on wild animals.
"Recovery happens only in community," says Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who believes in the concept. "Almost always, [it's] a community of other combat-wounded veterans."
John McDaniel, Wounded Warriors' founder, looks exactly like the retired Army Ranger lieutenant colonel he is: broad shoulders, prodigious chest, twinkling eyes, and a smile that could charm the Taliban. Men on his trips call him "sir" or "the colonel."
When he began taking wounded vets hunting, McDaniel was living in Delray Beach and running a private aviation company. He and his wife paid for the vacations themselves — hunting on land the couple owned in Wisconsin, and fishing in Tampa Bay. McDaniel had taken similar trips with buddies during his 20-year military career, and 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 doesn't take a salary; his organization depends on volunteers.
His charity 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, nonprofits have taken vets skiing in Colorado, fly-fishing in Montana, bear hunting in West Virginia, and pheasant hunting in Pennsylvania.
Although officials from the Veterans Affairs National Center on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) point out there is no study proving these trips cure posttraumatic stress disorder — the most common mental affliction of returning vets — the basic healing properties of men tromping through nature together are hard to miss.
Donald Stewart,a psychologist in Cocoa Beach who treats vets, 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 has grown up hunting, it may also bring them comfort."
Along with Finley, each of the four other men skimming over the murky swamp with McDaniel on this hunt has lived his own personal wartime tragedy:
• Ryan Olech, a 30-year-old Army Ranger, took two bullets in Afghanistan. He got out of the service in July and is living with his wife in Pennsylvania, planning to attend school for taxidermy next year.
• Kevin Johnson, a 44-year-old former Army sergeant with a round, kind face, leans on a cane necessitated by pain from diabetes. During the first Gulf War, he worked as an operating-room tech at Walter Reed. He re-enlisted to serve in the second Iraq war. In total, he gave 18 years to the military.
• Gary Horn was driving a Humvee near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2008 when Taliban fighters ambushed, launching a rocket-propelled grenade through the window of his truck. The pressure blew a hole in the now-26-year-old's ear drum and left him with herniated discs and a traumatic brain injury.
• Greg Amira, 42, was a vice president for Morgan Stanley on 9/11, narrowly escaping when the South Tower collapsed. Six years later, serving as a reservist in Iraq, his convoy was hit by an IED. The truck in front of his exploded and flipped into a drainage ditch. During their rescue, Amira swallowed sewage and chemical waste, burning his esophagus. His face was mangled, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
They've each come to McDaniel's hunt for different reasons. Horn, who is beefy and pale, with a mosaic of tattoos covering his bare arms, has been haunted by nightmares since returning to his tiny hometown near Clemson, South Carolina.
"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."
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.
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.