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Hunting alligators no sweat for these war veterans

Hunting alligators in the marshes, lakes, rivers and swamps of Florida is dangerous work. Make a mistake around the powerful reptiles and you can be injured, or worse.

But on a recent Saturday evening at state-owned land west of Wellington, the gators were no match for a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Tough as the hides on the backs of the alligators they sought, the 10 vets never complained about the traumas and severe injuries they endured while fighting for their country. Instead, they relished the opportunity to be hunting for alligators.

"I'm excited," said Andrew Berry shortly after he and two other veterans caught a 6-foot, 7 ½-inch alligator. "I was a sniper in the Army. This is the first time I shot something other than a human."

The hunt in the man-made marsh came about when members of the Florida Sportmen's Conservation Association in West Palm Beach invited members of the Wounded Warrior Project, a group that helps injured veterans return to civilian life.

Club members Tom McWatters and his daughter, Brenna, each offered one of their gator permits so the veterans could use them to hunt.

After a cookout of hamburgers, hot dogs and alligator sausage, club members and the veterans drove the levees of Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West and scanned the canals for alligators lurking along the banks. The season had already been open for two months and big gators were scarce and wary.

When a decent candidate was eventually spotted, a weighted treble hook was cast with a spinning rod across the gator's back, then the hook was reeled into the gator's hide.

Veteran Greg Amira put down his cane, took the fishing rod and reeled like he was trying to land Jaws. A second hook was cast and set and Patrick Wickens, who had lost his right leg in Iraq, scrambled through the grass on his crutches to grab the fishing rod.

When the thrashing gator came to the bank, Berry harpooned it, then the gator was killed with a shot to its brain with a bang stick. McWatters put a tag in the gator's tail, the gator went into the bed of his pickup truck and the search began for the next gator.

"These fellas here, it's not about getting a gator," FSCA member Scott Sommer said. "It's about getting out here and having a good time."

The veterans had a great time and they got their limit of four gators, the biggest a 10-foot, 2-incher. The following morning the veterans helped club members skin and cut up the gators at McWatters' house and each vet was sent home with bags of gator meat.

"It was fun," said Wickens, of Orlando, who grew up in Montana where he hunted elk, deer, antelope and pheasants. "I'm going to come back next year and get my own tags."

Berry, of Orlando, badly hurt his back and legs as a sergeant with an Airborne unit, which requires him to take 14 different medications a day.

"It's good to be with guys who understand people with disabilities," said Berry, who made plans to hunt gators with Wickens. "I actually had a ball and I definitely want to do it again."

Amira, of Trinity, which is north of Tampa, worked as a broker for Morgan Stanley on the 73rd floor of building 2 of the World Trade Center. He survived 9-11 and helped get numerous others out of the building, but he was injured after going back in to help more people.

A reservist, he was recalled in 2004 and sent to Iraq despite his injuries. Working as a captain in special operations, he was in a Humvee that was hit by enemy fire. He rescued two of his buddies, winning a valor award and a Purple Heart while sustaining a traumatic brain injury from the blast that took out the Humvee, as well as back and internal injuries.

"The one thing now for me is I won't say no to anything," Amira said after bagging his first gator. "Now I'm a daredevil."