It Had to Be Snakes
It Had to Be Snakes
We’ve been out here a few hours and I still can’t see shit, standing up in the pickup bed of an old Ford F-150, except an occasional airplane’s lights heading away from wherever we’re driving through this endless Everglades night. I trust that the two men with me know what’s happening as I try to squint for landmarks on the black-on-black horizon. I check my watch; it’s 8:20 p.m. Sunset was just over an hour ago.
My phone tracker says we’ve traveled about 30 miles, and while it feels like we’re tearing ass up the narrow gravel levee road, we probably haven’t broken 15 miles an hour.
“SNAKE!” screams Tom “Sergeant Major” Aycock, as he leaps from his perch on the still-moving rear bumper. Aycock, a 50-something veteran who fought in Iraq, lumbers at full speed into the darkness as the vehicle shudders to a halt and I collide with the truck’s cab.
I’ve dropped my notebook somewhere in the swampy blackness; by the time I find it, Aycock is 50 feet ahead, a gloved hand on the brown-and-tan serpent in the road. The two-foot snake is a “native” and not the beast we seek; we’re hunting invaders, Burmese pythons, like the 13-footer that Aycock trapped out here a few days ago.
The python hunters I’m with call themselves the Swamp Apes. They have uniform shirts and unit patches. One patch displays the group motto, “Endure, evolve, achieve”; another is just the number 22, signifying how many veterans are estimated by the VA to die by suicide daily.
Aycock is a long-serving enlisted soldier who still serves full-time in the Army Reserve in Homestead, Florida. For a decade, the aw-shucks, bushwhacking bubba’s off-duty relaxation activity of choice has been to take service veterans out of South Florida civilization and teach them to hunt snakes in a smart, military fashion. Big snakes.
That’s all thanks to Tom Rahill, the main mover behind the Swamp Apes and the man driving the truck tonight. Always cheerful behind a tangle of spectacles and whiskers, Rahill looks a bit like Jerry Garcia, if Jerry Garcia had joined Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. A lifelong naturalist, Rahill has never served in uniform. He found his bliss volunteering in the Everglades—first clearing brush and trash from trails, and eventually helping to cull the wetlands’ invasive species.
A decade ago, Rahill got to thinking that his brother- and sister-in-law—both soldiers coming off war deployments—might enjoy joining him on his Everglades snake hunts as a sort of immersion therapy: small, military-style night patrols with a clear, ecologically sound, yet inherently hazardous, objective. He guessed right; since their founding, the Swamp Apes have brought about 100 vets out for a similar experience.
This must be what a patrol in Iraq felt like, I think: scanning your quiet, dark, hot environs for threats, dismounting when you find one, your bodily sensors vibrating with so much anticipatory mojo that your excitement and fear melt together into a single galvanic current.
The snakes we’re hunting swim well, climb well, and move fast. They can top 200 pounds, fight gators, and ruin your goddamn night with a constricting coil or three of their muscular tails. And of course, as in any military movement, the enemy isn’t your only foe: out here there are precipitous blind drives, obstructed paths, other reptilian carnivores, and fogs of mosquitoes thick and relentless enough to make you question your life choices.
I’m guessing it’s like a patrol, anyway. I can count on one hand the number of times I trekked “outside the wire,” off the Baghdad base complex where I spent nine months as a contractor, doing public affairs for the Army. The VA gives me a card confirming I can legally call myself a “veteran,” but I don’t pull down any benefits, and that seems right.
At this moment, our captive is benign. “Corn snake,” the two men say in unison as I gawk at the little fella. Rahill starts to give us a quick rundown on the snake that’s now climbing excitedly into a crack between the buttons of his overshirt. “It’s natural and okay to be afraid,” he explains. “And remember if they bite, just let ‘em bite you. They’re not venomous.”
Burmese pythons aren’t venomous either, but since they’re among the five largest species of snakes on earth, you sure as hell wouldn’t want them to bite you. The explanations for how Burmese pythons got here, not more than 40 miles from where I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, are as fuzzy as the landscape. Hurricane Andrew usually gets a lot of credit, for demolishing a ramshackle warehouse for imported reptiles in 1992. Florida, which hosts more “introduced species” than any other state, has also long been a haven for exotic-pet owners, who have gone on to dump their burdensome behemoths in these parts from time immemorial.
The state of Florida offers hefty incentives to approved contractors like Aycock and Rahill to catch the invasive pythons in these protected parts: $8.10 an hour, $50 for the first four feet of a snake, plus $25 for each additional foot. The snakes are then humanely euthanized by state officials.
We leave the scrawny brown leather snake to his rat-hunting and get rolling again. Aycock breaks the silence in the truck bed to explain to me just what we’ll do if we spot a Burmese: once you see it, “you got 30 to 40 seconds, basically, to get down to ‘em,” he tells me. Grab the python behind the head, and try to keep the beast from finding your neck with its tail while you toss that big heavy fucker in a billowy canvas bag and tie it tight.
“Once you do it,” Aycock insists, “you’re friggin’ hooked forever.”
I can see why military veterans might respond positively to Aycock’s laid-back bravado, but I didn’t come here to experience the thrill of hand-spelunking for a gnarly ten-foot-long muscle with fangs. I didn’t really come here to hunt the snakes at all. I came to find out how military veterans have come to see hunting the Burmese python as a way to struggle with their own demons, in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Diagnoses of PTSD for veterans in the United States, along with rates of veteran suicide, are on the rise—hardly a surprise, given that the US has been fighting wars on several fronts for nearly two decades now. A VA-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation, the nonprofit government research organization, estimated that one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—as many as half a million people in total—suffer from PTSD or other forms of severe depression, and only about half have sought treatment.
Depression and post-traumatic stress have always been problems for military service members; the VA estimates the incidence of PTSD in Vietnam veterans at around 30 percent. But the reentry of 2 million post-9/11 vets into civilian life—many of them millennials, and many of them outspoken—has helped destigmatize PTSD and encouraged more Americans to seek help. The demand for treatment is outpacing supply, precipitating “a major health crisis facing those men and women who have served,” according to Terri Tanielian, one of RAND’s top PTSD researchers.
The reasons are many and complex: the Department of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed and under-resourced; veterans don’t know what resources are available to them; and many sufferers don’t qualify for help, don’t have insurance, or don’t want a paper record of mental-health issues that could somehow cast a pall over their livelihoods or social standings.
This must be what a patrol in Iraq felt like, I think: scanning your quiet, dark, hot environs for threats, dismounting when you find one, your bodily sensors vibrating with anticipatory mojo.
Into this breach have come what the VA calls “complementary and alternative medicine therapies” for sufferers of mental trauma: acupuncture and music and art therapy, meditation and mindfulness. There’s also marijuana, ecstasy, and CBD oil. There’s even bladesmithing, if that’s your sort of thing.
And then there’s the Swamp Apes. Incorporated last year as a 501(c)3, the group of 100 or so volunteers goes “road cruising” and “jungle busting” in groups of two to five in these protected wetlands—just ten miles west of 5 million people’s homes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties—to clear trails of invasive plants, inspect snake traps, and catch the animal kingdom’s hoariest derelicts. Most of the volunteers are veterans; many have war experience and a litany of mental-health issues. The group, which has state environmental officials’ blessing, adds to its numbers by word of mouth or by receiving referrals from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Miami-based medical clinic. (A “model” clinic for the rest of the country, says Rahill.)
Exposure therapies—face-your-fears, the-only-way-around-is-through kinda activities—have long been recognized by mental-health professionals as having potential value for trauma sufferers. (“People with PTSD often try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma,” explains the VA’s public guide to “prolonged exposure therapy.”) Exposure treatments “can help weaken previously learned associations between feared objects, activities, or situations and bad outcomes,” the American Psychological Association’s guidelines advise, and usually, such treatments involve long, deep one-on-one explorations of past trauma with a therapist. Swamp Ape hunts, however, don’t dwell on the past, and there’s no initiation, no magic number of sessions or milestones to hit.
Last year, researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa began gathering data in earnest on the Swamp Apes’ effectiveness. While their survey pool was only 18 participants, 10 of them vets, there were no negative outcomes reported; most said the group’s activities satisfied their sense of purpose and opened them up to new trust-based relationships.
“It often doesn’t go as planned, just like in the military it doesn’t go as planned,” one vet told the researchers. “But it was exciting, you used your skills, and you did something in service to nature.”
The vets almost invariably keep coming out on missions, Aycock says. “The feedback we get is, ‘Yeah, I cut back on my drinking ... I was kind of abusing some of the medication they were giving me, and now I wanna come out and I wanna go hunt pythons, and I know I gotta be cleaned up,” he explains.
“Some of them are, you know, fairly shot up. They have PTSD, some of them have TBI”—traumatic brain injuries—“some of ’em are paraplegics, wheelchair-bound. Maybe we don’t even don’t catch a python. The fact is, we’re out!”
It’s quiet in the back of the truck as Aycock rides the tailgate, spotting every damned living thing but a python: here’s a scrawny four-foot gator, there’s a couple of catfish—“another invasive,” he notes. A thunderstorm asserts itself now and then in the distance, dim yellow lights occasionally flickering in the clouds. My eyes have adjusted and I’ve been scanning the road and marshes. You start to see snakes everywhere in anticipation of finding one.
I’m reminded of the handful of times in Iraq when I actually got off base riding in an up-armored bus across the seven miles of “Route Irish” to the Green Zone. Once the most dangerous road in the country, Route Irish had been pretty well locked down by the time I got there in 2008—a freeway with 100 yards of razed rubble on either side, dotted with Iraqi Army humvees. You still scrutinized every piece of trash or carcass of an animal on the side of the road, wondering: Is that an IED? I knew guys who came home and couldn’t drive normally anymore.
Snake, not a snake. Bomb or no bomb? Like most counterinsurgencies, this fight is also open-ended. Since Florida began offering bounties and keeping count of its haul, 1,700 Burmese pythons have been captured by contractors like Rahill and Aycock. Does that put a dent in the population? Who knows? The US Geological Survey, keepers of the federal government’s best statistics, basically throw their hands up and estimate that there are “tens of thousands” of the snakes out here. The Swamp Apes, like Donald Rumsfeld, lack the metrics to know if they’re winning.
But the aggregate doesn’t matter when you’re on the ground like this—watching, waiting, waiting, falling asleep, waking up disoriented, watching, waiting more. “You can ride the levees for hours and hours and hours and not see shit,” Aycock says. It’s nearing two in the morning now, and looking increasingly like this will be the story of our night, python-less. I wonder how the hell I’m going to tell this story with no snake-wrestling and no troubled veterans. Just Rahill and Aycock and me, the guy Rahill’s been trying to get out here with coaxing, upbeat texts since early 2017.
Shit. Am I their troubled vet?
I love the company of veterans, but I wince when I’m called one. Both my stints in the Navy were shortened by a mix of youthful waffling and bottomless neuroses; calling what I did “service” feels a bit like theft. When I went to Iraq, it was as a media contractor, a last resort after the Great Recession vaporized my newspaper job, my student loans started defaulting, and my fledgling marriage began to dissolve into dysfunction. I stayed on a big base and worked in a literal palace, writing speeches, briefings, and press releases. Being in a war zone felt like literally the least stressful aspect of my life.
So I didn’t listen to my wife at the time when she said I’d come back different, meaner, edgier. Sure, I was impatient with everyone and everything. I cried and worried life was all uphill. I took bad news horribly and road-raged and launched into rants against whatever was around.
I remembered the “indirect fire” alarms signaling rocket or mortar attacks; the long, dull-but-not-really waits in hardened defensive bunkers, contemplating oblivion; the sounds of indiscriminate explosions somewhere nearby. And I recalled the scant sleeping hours on my return stateside, where the sound of a Dallas or Miami thunderstorm could reduce me to incoherence.
Snake, not a snake. Bomb or no bomb? Like most counterinsurgencies, this fight is also open-ended.
I’d gone most of my life never worrying about thunder, or the jiggle of turbulence in a commercial air flight, or the crying of a child; now each triggered an immediate, immobilizing sensation that I was doomed. These anxieties seemed to have nothing to do with my time in Iraq or in uniform. They mixed with and intensified a whole host of unrelated fears: you will die in debt and unfulfilled. You will never be loved. You will never change the world, only be desiccated by it.
But what did an undistinguished sailor, brief war profiteer, and middling journalist have to complain about, really? I now understand that I have severe depression and anxiety, and I have for a long time; perhaps it was there, dormant, before I slapped on my first dress whites, but it was definitely there after. I haven’t been diagnosed with PTSD, but it doesn’t feel outlandish, now that I think about it tonight, seeing snakes in every shadow and feeling “operational” again.
The first time I met Tom Rahill last year, I came out and asked him: could the Swamp Apes really untangle some of the drippy inner turmoil that I—and literally hundreds of thousands of more distinguished veterans with less mundane war stories—experience?
Tom responded fast in the affirmative, with a certainty that made me more envious than skeptical: “I’m onto something that works, man.”
As we ride the truck back out of the Everglades, we rouse a pair of screech owls on the road, probably doing the same thing as us: looking for some slithering pay dirt. But tonight won’t be our night. The air is refreshingly cool, too cool for the reptiles to bother coming out.
Didn’t really matter to me. I got an inner peace that yoga has never given me. In the days after this trip, I will wake up, on time, with energy I haven’t felt in years. I’ll enjoy my first weekend in recent memory in the company of friends and family, not just my familiar fears of failure and powerlessness. “This opens up living again,” Aycock told me before we drove off in search of the snakes. “You get that kinda response, you get that kind of interaction with these guys. It’s just better than anything I do on active service, better than anything I wear on the left side of my chest,” he says, pointing to where his considerable rack of military ribbons would be.
It’s 4 a.m., and as I peel off my snake boots beside my car on the trailhead, exhausted, Rahill asks me when I’m coming out next. Wouldn’t I rather do this for treatment, he asks, than go into some government shrink’s office “with overwaxed floors, peeling paint, torn health safety posters about the ABCDs of skin cancer?”
Honestly, nothing tonight has scared me more than that image of administrative oblivion. You’re telling me my choice is Kafka or tempting the ire of a gator-fighting giant snake in the dark? That’s no choice at all.