When 30-year-old Iraq war veteran Jorge Martinez left the Marine Corps, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The vet wanted to readjust to civilian life and get involved in social activities, but being amid large crowds made him uncomfortable.
Then, a little over a year ago, Martinez met Tom Rahill — the leader of a loose confederation of outdoors people calling themselves the Swamp Apes — through the recreational therapy program at a Veterans Administration hospital. At first, it would appear the two men had little in common: Rahill, a 50-something engineer from Plantation, had never served in the U.S. military. Martinez, though a Homestead native, had never been to the Everglades.
But, both say, the partnership has helped them immensely — and the Everglades ecosystem has benefitted as well.
Since 2009, Rahill has been recruiting war veterans to volunteer with the Swamp Apes, clearing paddling and hiking trails in Everglades National Park and hunting for exotic Burmese pythons in the Everglades outside the park.
“The goal of the Swamp Apes is to serve veterans and thank veterans for their service to our country,” Rahill said. “This is an extreme adventure. It matches the level of adrenaline some veterans have experienced in an active war zone. It’s adrenaline with a purpose.”
Martinez agreed, adding that volunteering in the Everglades gives vets an outlet for their well-honed drive to accomplish a mission.
“In the military, we are trained that you have a goal, a mission to accomplish that’s similar to what Tom is offering,” he said. “We just get it done. In the military, no matter what you encounter, you have to keep moving forward.”
On a recent Sunday, about a half-dozen former servicemen joined Rahill in the park, using hand tools to clear obstacles from the Bear Lake Canoe Trail near Flamingo. The narrow, muddy stream that flows a little more than 1 1/2 miles to Bear Lake was blocked by deadfalls, along with the hiking trail that runs parallel to it.
The Swamp Apes paired up in canoes, using hatchets and hand saws to cut a thick buttonwood that had fallen across the stream and then heaved the sawed logs into the woods on the other side of the hiking trail. Then they resumed paddling until they encountered another obstacle and repeated the process. The volunteers didn’t use buzz saws or motorboats in deference to the park’s tranquil, primitive atmosphere. It was slow, hot work, but no one complained.
At one point, the group paused to make way for a kayaker returning from Bear Lake to the put-in. Matt Taffney from Boynton Beach said he was grateful for their work.
“They did a good job,” Taffney said as he pulled his kayak out of the water.
What the members of the Swamp Apes really look forward to is hunting for pythons. They accompany Rahill, who has a permit to remove the huge invasive reptiles from state-owned lands.
“An adrenaline rush,” Marine Corps veteran Jacinto Molina said.
Martinez says he has caught seven pythons — including one longer than 12 feet — while hunting with Rahill. He caught his first a few months ago in south Miami-Dade County unassisted.
Martinez said he spotted the snake as he bumped down a dirt road in his truck on his way to meet Rahill.
“My heart was pumping out of my chest,” he said.
When he tried to catch the seven-footer, it darted into the wheel well of his truck, making for the engine compartment.
“I just pulled it out by the tail,” he said.
Realizing he didn’t have a bag in which to stow it, Martinez jumped into the truck with the snake coiled around one arm.
“I drove with him wrapped around my arm. I started honking, calling Tom, ‘Hey I got it,’ ” he recalled, laughing.
Martinez, Molina and two other vets, Steve Verbovszky and Joshua Acevedo helped Rahill search for pythons a few weeks ago in a large, undeveloped tract called the Frog Pond — a former farm near Homestead General Aviation Airport owned by the South Florida Water Management District. The group was accompanied by Jeff Fobb, a captain with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Venom One snakebite response team. Fobb was off duty that day — invited because of his python wrangling skills.
After four hours of trekking from tangles of poisonwood and willow to dry prairies pocked with limestone solution holes and finally through an abandoned mango grove, the men spotted 10 snakes — seven black racers, one garter snake and two unidentified, but no pythons.
Despite being hot, sweaty and snake-less, Acevedo, a 27-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he enjoyed the experience.
“I never messed with snakes in my life, but I’m getting into hunting,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid of them. I don’t fear them.
“Ever since I got back from Iraq, I get into long walks being by myself. With people in big groups, I get agitated. I feel uncomfortable. But I’m out here in a nonviolent, nonaggressive environment.”
Rahill jokes that as he gets “older and fatter,” he’d like to see the Swamp Apes become a permanent, nonprofit, veteran-run organization with some source of funding to keep it going.
Said Rahill: “This, to me, is important to the interest and perpetuation of the Everglades.”