Vets find healing in outdoors

Florida Today
Matt Badolato

One evening in the spring of 2004, Kevin Johnson, a truck driver in the Army National Guard, took his post for guard duty in the Iraqi desert. As the sun went down, he jerked to attention as enemy mortars burst into a checkpoint across the base. Moments later, three missiles sailed into his post, exploding just a few meters away.

Fast forward seven years to Oct. 1.

I'm sitting with Johnson at a table beside the St. Johns River, listening to his story. A walking cane rests across his lap, the result of a brain injury from the attack and a regular reminder of his sacrifice.

On my lap, a plate of fried alligator fritters and slow-cooked wild hog reminds me why I'm here.

It's the third annual alligator hunt put on by the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation. They've come together with the Brevard County Airboat Association, American Legion Post 81 and Camp Holly to organize the hunt for Johnson and four other wounded vets.

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Founded by retired Lt. Col. John McDaniel in 2007, the hunt offers Purple Heart recipients their choice of cost-free, guided outdoor adventures across the nation. Other trips this year included a turkey hunt in Alabama, an upland bird shoot in New York and bass fishing in Texas.

"The outdoors has remarkable mental and spiritual healing power, and these guys deserve it," said McDaniel.

A veteran parajumper himself, McDaniel retired from the Army to follow his dream of bringing as many combat vets back to the outdoors as possible.

"I knew I could do better out than in (the Army)," McDaniel said. "I decided to devote my time to my passion."

I work my way through the camo-dressed crowd at Camp Holly -- a home base for airboaters, bikers and, of course, gator hunters. There I meet the wheelchair-bound Kyle Finley, a 25-year old vet whose truck was ambushed while serving in Afghanistan.

"I retired from the Army after the attack, but I got in a car wreck at home and was paralyzed," said Finley, who lives to hunt and fish in his home state of Kentucky. "I have the best luck," he said with a quiet laugh.

The next veteran I met was 30-year old Ryan Olech, who came from Tennessee to hunt a Florida gator. He'd been shot twice -- once in the arm and once in the shoulder -- and was awarded the Purple Heart.

"I remember getting knocked to the ground by the shots, and that's it," Olech said. "I woke up five days later in Walter Reed Hospital."

Enemies on motorcycles ambushed Gary Horn of South Carolina, a 26-year old Air Force medic, while on a raid in Afghanistan. A rocket-propelled grenade went right through the driver's side window of Horn's truck. He suffered a bad concussion and herniated disks, but he says he's lucky to be alive.

Greg Amira of New Port Richey was wide-eyed and ready to hunt an alligator. Amira worked for Morgan Stanley on the 73rd floor of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 tragedy. He suffered full-body injuries, but still served in Iraq after the attacks. Amira was injured overseas after diving into a chemical-laden canal to save a group of soldiers whose vehicle went off the road.

The former soldiers stand around getting ready for their gator hunt -- practicing harpoon throwing, crossbow shooting and safety. Meanwhile, Jim Rosasco, treasurer of the Brevard County Airboat Association, invites me on a quick airboat ride through the St. Johns.

We hover through dark cypress swamps, with banana spiders above us wielding nests large enough to catch birds. Baby gators zip around the edges of the trails.

Back at the dock, our heroes are piling into airboats with five of the finest gator guides in Brevard. One by one they ride out into the sunset, their hopes set on harvesting a trophy. They're wearing camo, but it's meant to blend into the swamp this time -- not the Arabian Desert.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The guys nabbed three gators that night, each about 9 feet long. The meat was processed the next morning and the hides preserved.

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