It’s April in the Florida Everglades, the end of dry season when Burmese pythons breed. This invasive species is now the region’s apex predator and these great snakes have scoured the native populations of birds and small mammals.
The larger snakes have even killed and eaten deer and alligators. By late afternoon as the hot sun is growing dimmer, Swamp Apes Tom Rahill, U.S. Navy veteran Joe “JoMo” Medina, and Sergeant Major Tom Aycock are tired.
They’ve been searching for the big snakes since dawn, covering 30 miles of terrain by truck and on foot, checking the sides of the levees and walking the water’s edge, if forcing a way through the high grass and underbrush taller than a man can be called “walking.” The high humidity, mid-80s temperatures, and merciless mosquitoes are just part of a day in the Everglades and they are prepared for it.
If any Swamp Ape doesn’t take precautions to protect himself, the sergeant major won’t hesitate to remind them. That’s what sergeant majors do. The snakes like to nest in old animal burrows and under matted straw grass.
The Swamp Apes maintain a list of possible nest sites identified in earlier missions. There are a lot and checking them takes time, even with the bore scope, a digital camera mounted on the end of a long flexible probe. Since a python has six rows of razor sharp backward-pointing teeth in its mouth that can shred your flesh and they aren’t hesitant to launch themselves 5 feet through the air to bite, the bore scope is nice to have.
But a successful python hunter doesn’t technically need a bore scope. What they need is perseverance. Rahill knows that even though they didn’t find anything on the 30-mile outbound trip, the odds are they’ll find something on the way back.
Aycock is at the wheel of the pickup truck, with the other two Swamp Apes standing in the back on watch, when he hears “Big snake! Big snake!” Spotting it basking on the edge of the levee, he brakes the truck as JoMo and Rahill dismount and run toward it.
It is very big. Sensing trouble, the serpent heaves its body over the side onto the levee’s grass and brush tangled slope. It is disappearing into green as JoMo and Rahill make the edge of the levee.
Had it been smaller, it might have escaped. Rahill guessed it was at least 13 feet when he first saw it on the levee, but a glimpse of its body and he knows “big snake” was an understatement. Its body is as thick as his leg. A snake this size could kill you if you made a mistake. He runs a few steps down the levee and dives headlong into the undergrowth as the creature vanishes, but lands on top of its heavy body. He works his hands up to find its head, constantly maneuvering like a wrestler on the mat, trying to keep the snake from throwing its coils on him.
Aycock and JoMo are with him in an instant, grabbing the snake’s great body and stretching it out so it can’t get the leverage it needs to throw its coils.
A man can outlast a snake in an endurance match if he knows what to do. But even a snake this big is no match for three skilled hunters. In just a few minutes, the twisting, hissing, biting, defecating (by the snake, anyway) is over. The creature is a pregnant female, every inch of 15 feet long and weighing over 110 pounds.
MANLY HIGH ADVENTURE of the type described above is a common event for the Swamp Apes that want it. The non-profit 501(c)(3) veteran-centered organization was founded 10 years ago by Rahill for the purpose of serving returning veterans through serving the wilderness. Their group activities, usually led by Rahill himself in support of Florida’s beautiful and rugged wilderness areas, are the therapy to help servicemen and -women readjust to civilian life after leaving the military.
They actually do a lot more than just hunt pythons. Conservation missions are matched to the interest and needs of the vets. “Strange as it may seem,” Rahill jokingly explains,
“not everyone wants to wrestle with a 12-foot-long, 100-pound snake in the swamp.” Among other things, veterans participate in wilderness area evaluation surveys, remove invasive plant species, and clear canoe trails for recreational visitors.
The conservation accomplishments of the Swamp Apes earned the organization a sterling reputation with the authorities responsible for the Everglades National Park (ENP), South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), whom they serve largely in a volunteer capacity.
Since python hunting is not the kind of activity one should pursue uninsured, Rahill prefers the Swamp Apes work as volunteers in the Everglades National Park, where they are protected by the federal government’s insurance if there is an accident or injury. Rahill, himself a licensed python contractor for the SFWMD and FWC, also holds a special letter of authorization for the removal of exotic species within the park. Rahill always leads the Swamp Apes as a volunteer, because accepting bounties for animals he catches would invalidate the government insurance coverage of the Swamp Apes with him. Though not a veteran himself, Rahill always held vets in the highest regard. “You can never repay a veteran for the sacrifices they make going to war,” he says.
The reality and magnitude of those sacrifices became more personal for him when members of his family deployed to Iraq. When Rahill’s wife, a professor and licensed clinical social worker, took a tenure track position in a distant state, Rahill became deeply depressed at their career-instigated separation and found relief for his grief by becoming a volunteer supervisor at ENP.
While he could not be with the first love of his life, he decided to focus on his second love – Florida’s wilderness.
An environmentalist and outdoorsman for over 40 years, becoming personally involved in preserving Florida’s wilderness areas gave him a renewed sense of purpose now that his wife was away, their children grown, and the demands of his own career were minimal.
His challenging conservation work responsibilities forced him to focus on the missions themselves for very practical reasons. Swarms of mosquitoes, alligators, maximum humidity driving heat indexes over 125 degrees, and orienteering through difficult terrain on foot and in a canoe over water, swamp and land give a man a lot to think about, other than the things that are making him sad.
The Everglades are no place for a tenderfoot. It’s easy to get hurt, or worse, if you don’t know how to handle yourself. Rahill was asked to join the Python Eradication program.
WHILE THE EVERGLADES helped Rahill deal with his own pain, he had an epiphany. He realized that God was teaching him how to help others. A man of Christian faith, Rahill found his guidance in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Put your trust in the Lord and do not rely on your own understanding.
Think of Him in all your ways and He will smooth your path.” Aware of the many veterans suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he began recruiting them to join him and share in the therapy of his wilderness adventures.
Searching for a name for the group, a park ranger suggested Swamp Apes, the Southern name for Sasquatch, or BigFoot. Rahill is a big man with an ample beard and it seemed like a great fit.
Though Rahill’s Christian faith guides his life, he does not proselytize to his fellow Swamp Apes and religion isn’t a part of the program.
All veterans are welcome and no one is questioned about their beliefs or personal circumstances, service record or troubles. The Swamp Apes motto is”“endure-evolve-achieve.” At its most basic level, the Swamp Apes are helping to heal PTSD vets by providing them with an extraordinary civilian activity where they are celebrated and appreciated for who they are, while making another valuable contribution to the society that they protected during their service. It revitalizes their sense of identity in the civilian world.
Military training prepared them for survival in harsh environments, so they have the skill set and mindset to tackle physically and mentally challenging missions in the Everglades.
The organization operates with the 24-hour clock, a chain of command, mission briefings, uniforms and patches (provided for the vets), and other military trappings that vets find familiar and comfortable.
Rahill became aware of the deeper therapeutic possibilities of the Swamp Apes when vets began opening up and sharing their painful war stories with him. These were stories they hadn’t, and often felt they couldn’t, share with their families.
Strong friendships develop between Swamp Apes over the shared difficulties of working in the Everglades. Rahill says that this new camaraderie helps to fill a big void in the lives of returning vets, replacing the sense of belonging and shared high purpose they had during their time in uniform.
The camaraderie is what makes them feel they can open up and let out the bad feelings. When they do, they feel better.
REALIZING HOW MUCH more good the Swamp Apes could do for PTSD vets if they had medically trained therapists in the field with their members, Rahill and the Swamp Apes board of directors sought the medical professionals and scientific researchers who could evaluate the efficacy of their activities as a prescribable PTSD treatment program. Dr. Manisha Joshi, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Social Work, was interested and willing to take on the first step of that process.
Dr. Joshi led an exploratory study team that interviewed returning war veterans and their family members about their participation with the Swamp Apes. In confidential interviews, participants agreed that it helped them transition back into civilian life. Specifically, their trauma symptoms were reduced (e.g. nightmares, depression, hypervigilance), family relationships improved, and they found a new sense of purpose. It has also offered them an opportunity to experience trust with team members, to feel unique and safe, and to be in a meaningful and remote place with nature that requires their directed attention.
The exploratory study team presented their findings at the American Public Health Association conference in 2017. This was a major step forward for the Swamp Apes. The American Public Health Association is a prestigious scientific venue and every abstract or proposal that is submitted for presentation at the conference undergoes rigorous peer-review at several levels.
Only a very small percentage are actually accepted for presentation, which is an indication of the relevance and timeliness of the Swamp Apes program, as well as to the quality of the study research itself. The bottom line, in Dr. Joshi’s words, “As a nature based program contextualized in the Everglades National Park, the Swamp Apes appears to be a promising alternative for veterans and others who have traumatogenic experiences.”
From a scientific research standpoint, an exploratory study doesn’t prove that the Swamp Apes activities work.
That would be the aim of an explanatory study. What the exploratory study did was obtain powerful testimonies from veterans and their family members to the effect that the program has saved and improved lives, providing strong preliminary evidence for the efficacy of the Swamp Apes program and opening the door for funding that would enable them to conduct a larger study that would prove causality.
SINCE RAHILL AND the Swamp Apes already know what they do works, they are charging ahead to help as many vets as they can. Thus far, Rahill funds the Swamp Apes out of his own pocket and has neither solicited nor accepted donations. With the expanded mission, this won’t be possible and the Swamp Apes LLC is now working toward securing the funding for several paid positions to put therapists in the Everglades in the near term.
A likely model would have student intern social workers in the field under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker.
Rahill feels the urgency. He’s found a therapy that works at a time when an average of 22 troubled vets a day are committing suicide and thousands more languish under drug-based treatments that mask their symptoms rather than heal their wounds.
The proof is in the words of the vets and their family members. A combat vet whose platoon suffered heavy casualties in Iraq explained, “The trauma is sometimes so bad, I can tell you in detail exactly how all these people died; exactly how they looked like. I choose not to. Swamp Apes is very therapeutic for me; it’s something I need every so often.”
A veteran suffering from severe depressive symptoms was getting treatment at the VA hospital but showed no improvement until he got involved with the Swamp Apes. His family members said, “He was in bed a lot … Used to have a lot of headaches and he would hear things … He was really bad … And then he got involved with Tom and Swamp Apes, and he shows us those snakes and other things they catch, and he’s all excited.
He’s learned a lot. We learned a lot. I’ve seen a big change. He’s more friendly, active, and responsible. He’s found a lot of relief … The stress was taken away by getting involved with Swamp Apes.”
The wilderness conservation oriented Swamp Apes don’t claim to be the solution for every veteran’s PTSD, but their success offers a model for other programs, with other equally noble objectives, across a broad spectrum of interests.
Describing what the Swamp Apes did for him, this veteran traced the blueprint of a successful program. “… It’s like a safe adrenaline rush, per se … It unites you to a team effort, and it takes you away from the hustle and bustle of Miami, which is very stressful … And then you go out here and you feel like a team … You have that same bond you do in the military.
When you get back from your deployment, you’re supposed to have a cool-down period. Re-acclimation … Swamp Apes is like what they told you that you were supposed to do, but you didn’t have a chance to do it, this is your way to do it.”
Editor’s note: Those wishing to learn more, participate or support the Swamp Apes should visit SwampApes.org or email SwampApes@gmail.com.
Story & Photos by Frank Jardim