Wounded veterans bond during nighttime gator hunt


Wounded Warriors Derek Stephens, left and Joseph "Buck" Parker, right, show off their catch Friday night on the banks of the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area. A total of ten soldiers from the Wounded Warriors program went on a gator hunt on the restoration area Friday night, August 2, 2013. FWC gave them 11 "tags" to take gators. The event was hosted by the Marion County Sportsmen's & Air Boaters Association along with the St. Johns Water Management District.

Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner
Published: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:56 p.m.

OCKLAWAHA — Excitement and camaraderie dimmed the lingering trauma of battle as 10 military veterans — most of them soldiers who were wounded in combat — prepared for a Wounded Warriors Project alligator hunt Friday night in the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area.

The hunt was sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Marion County Sportsmen’s and Airboater’s Association, and it was hosted by the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The outing for the veterans began around 3:30 p.m. with a safety orientation and information session about how to use a bang stick, which is 6-foot pole tipped with a gun mechanism loaded with a handgun round or shotgun shell. Al Roberts and Will Parker of Gator Country Trappers and Outfitters, both of whom are licensed Marion County alligator trappers, demonstrated how to hit the gator behind the head with the bang stick.

Organizers of the hunt had FWC “tags,” or permits, to cover a gator each for the up to 15 veterans originally expected to participate.

Around 5:30, the warriors and their airboat crews hit the water. The group tagged their limit of alligators by about 10:30 p.m., with 11 gators hauled in measuring from about 7 feet 4 inches up to about 10 feet 10 inches and weighting up to several hundred pounds.

One gator was taken for each veteran present, and one was taken for a veteran who was hospitalized and couldn’t join the outing.

FWC biologist Steve Stiegler said the “special permits for a limited public access area” were issued to the individual veterans at no charge. The regular alligator harvesting season starts Aug. 15. Officials said that “6,000 to 7,000” gators are typically taken each year statewide.

Thomas Hill with the St. Johns River Water Management District assisted with allowing the participants to gain access to the water across gated property.

“This is epic,” said Lito Santos, 28, of Orlando, an Army veteran who lost his left leg in Iraq in 2005 to an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion.

Santos was the first to land a gator, bringing in an 8-foot-8-inch, 150-pound bull, working on an airboat manned by Jeff Sanders, Bob Wester and Steve Bell.

“He got him like a champion,” Wester said as Santos’ gator was measured.

Joseph “Buck” Parker and Derek Stephens, both U.S. Army platoon sergeants, fought together in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and were both wounded in a firefight. On Friday, they teamed up again to hunt the alligators on the 6,230-acre wetland area, which is about 15 miles east of Ocala.

Parker, 41, a Citrus County native now on active duty near Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Stephens, 37, from Grayson, Ky,; bagged three gators about 10 feet long each as Roberts used a “Fox pro game” baby gator call simulator and the veterans manned a treble hook on fishing tackle to make initial contact.

Parker and Stephens hollered with excitement and high-fived each other and the crew as the first gator bit the boat and then was pulled aboard.

Stephens said the whole event was a good experience. “It’s good to be with fellow wounded veterans who ‘get it,’ ” he said.

Norm Boutwell, who was in the Marine Corps for 20 years and serves as president of the recently formed airboaters association, said all the boat usage, gas and equipment were donated by members and supportive airboat owners who heard about the event.

“I want to thank the FWC, St. Johns River Water Management District and the airboaters who came from as far away as Georgia to host our veterans,” Boutwell said.

Airboat owner Scott Illgen said it was all about bringing a smile to the veterans’ faces.

Airboat crew volunteers included David Chastain and his son Justin, 32, a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan; Bruce Sogan, Troy Patterson, “Cajun” Perry, Rowdy Gordon, Scott Ellis, Paul Coulter, Jack Hughes, Roger Walters and Donnie Connell.

Marie Chastain, Lisa Gordon, Crystal Lukas and volunteers from the First Baptist Church of Salt Springs served a pulled pork and ham meal to the gator hunters before they headed out.

Leanne Almyda, 48, of Dunnellon, an Afghanistan War veteran, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She brought in the second largest catch at 10 feet 8 inches.

“I got my gator,” she said as she lifted the creature’s head and flashed a big grin.

Barry Offenburger, 33, of Miami, who also served in Afghanistan, got a roughly 9-foot-7-inch alligator. Iraq War veteran Lyndon Ortiz, 26, of Orlando, who was injured in a an IED explosion, landed one over nine feet long.

Kevin Crowder, 31, of Tiger Hole near Jacksonville, an Iraq War vet who sustained a spinal cord injury, netted a 10-foot-7-inch gator, but it was Nate Helmuth, 32, of Middleburg, who was injured in 2007 in Iraq when he was thrown from a vehicle, who took top honors for the night with a bull gator that measured 10 feet 10 inches.

Gordon Woolley, 35, of Kissimmee, an Afghanistan War veteran, brought in a 7-foot-4-incher. Chris Horman, 34, of Jacksonville, landed a 10-foot-4-inch gator.

Arrangements had been made with a processor to handle the processing of the gator meat. Most of the veterans said they would keep the head and possibly have the leather processed as well.

Horman, who incurred a traumatic brain injury when a vehicle exploded nearby while he served in Iraq in 2005, is now a police officer with CSX Transportation. He said Wounded Warrior events like the gator hunt are “very helpful” for those who have suffered.

“This gator hunt was chance for us to get together. We’re blood brothers,” Horman said.

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