Down in the Everglades, a group of veterans known as "The Swamp Apes" are finding healing for their emotional wounds.
“You get your mind off of everything else,” said Marine veteran Jorge Martinez. “Any bills, any stuff that you’ve got going on personally, and you’re out here trying to accomplish a mission. The mission is to eventually eradicate, as much as possible, the invasive species.”
Those invasive species include plants, but, more famously, Burmese pythons. The non-native snakes are renown for their massive size and appetites. They are infamous for the havoc they can wreak on sensitive environments like Everglades National Park.
Under a hot sun, Martinez and Barry Offenburger, who served as an Army Specialist, slowly paddled their canoe around a lake looking for signs of pythons.
The search can take hours. Much of the time is passed in silence or small talk. In those moments, Martinez, Offenburger, and other vets find respites of relief from flashbacks and other Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms that can instantly take them back to the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first few years are tough.
“I kind of felt different,” Martinez remembered. “I didn’t want to be around different people.” At night, Martinez had no relief. He suffered routine nightmares. Offenburger said he, and other servicemen and women do too, and coming home to civilian life can be a rough readjustment.
“They come back from a combat situation, and they were getting food bought for them at the airport when you get home,” Offenburger explained. “[There are] handshakes, ‘thank you very much,’ and then, you get back, and you hang up your uniform, and it’s like, ‘what now?’"
Back in 2008, Tom Rahill, a lifelong outdoorsman from Broward, was coping with trauma too. His wife accepted a job out of state which left him with a void. He filled it with volunteering in the Everglades. Rahill spent hours clearing canoe and hiking paths, and in that process, found a renewed sense of peace and purpose.
In the intensity of the Everglades, he felt veterans could find the same.
“It’s an extreme environment,” Rahill said. “A lot of what [veterans] go through is extreme, and it has a tendency to match that extreme emotional burden that they carry. It worked for me, and I thought it would work for the veterans.”
Six years later, Rahill, and the Swamp Apes have collected and removed dozens of non-native snakes, and many more plant species. In the coming years, the group hopes to expand its nationwide.