War vets, in­ner city youth join to trap Florida pythons

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

US war vet­eran Chad Brown suf­fers from PTSD af­ter serv­ing in Iraq and So­ma­lia, has been home­less and clas­si­fied as men­tally dis­abled, sold his blood for $20 a pop and tried to kill him­self. Now he has found some sem­blance of re­demp­tion in the swamps of Florida, muck­ing around with dis­ad­van­taged in­ner city youths to catch snakes and get a taste of na­ture as he works to con­nect with other peo­ple.

The project is the brain child of a Port­land­based NGO called Soul River. The kids find adult men­tors while the vets gain some per­spec­tive on life, says Brown, a dec­o­rated Navy vet­eran who founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion. On this par­tic­u­lar day Brown is with another vet and five youths in the Lox­a­hatchee na­ture re­serve, on Florida’s east coast, when a Burmese python slith­ers out of a sack that a forestry of­fi­cial had been hold­ing it in.

One of the kids, 14-year-old Gabriel Bliss, tries to trap the snake as he has been taught. But he messes up-and it bites him. “That’s the coolest thing,” said Bliss, show­ing off his bleed­ing hand. Later, the group troops off into a swamp with muck up to their hips in­fested with mos­qui­toes and al­li­ga­tors. But a Florida Ever­glades guide as­sures them that the big-toothed crit­ters do not like hu­man flesh. All the hu­mans get are bug bites. Brown founded Soul River in 2011 af­ter con­clud­ing that a sim­ple sport-fly fish­ing-was the only thing that helped him bat­tle his PTSD.

Brown left the Navy in 1994 and bot­tomed out in 2000 when he was ad­mit­ted to a psy­chi­atric ward and thought he had lost ev­ery­thing. But life changed when he ven­tured out into na­ture. He went fish­ing. “When I was hook­ing in on my first fish, I was laugh­ing and I was proud and I felt all this med­i­ca­tion that I was tak­ing was com­ing out of my sys­tem, ba­si­cally,” Brown said. He went to tell his doc­tors how much it helped. Their an­swer: keep do­ing it.

“I started to fish more, and fly fish­ing be­came a very, very crit­i­cal life­style pivot piece of my life. It was like a medicine for me,” the 45-year-old Texan said. In 2011, Brown de­cided to share this un­ex­pected kind of ther­apy with un­der­priv­i­leged youths in Port­land, where he lives now, and with fel­low war vets. “We give them an op­por­tu­nity to find them­selves as I found my­self on the river,” he said.

Such is the case of young Bliss, who de­cided to take on her­petol­ogy-the study of rep­tiles and am­phib­ians-af­ter his snake bite. And then there is Tyrell Hall, 16, who used to dream of be­ing a foot­ball player but now wants to study birds and be­come an or­nithol­o­gist. But these kids find men­tors in other ways, too.

Eigh­teen year-old Cit­lalli Briseno said that she has never met her fa­ther. “There was a lot of anger and re­sent­ment to­wards him and just be­ing in this or­ga­ni­za­tion, see­ing men that ac­tu­ally have fam­i­lies, that ac­tu­ally care for their fam­i­lies and be­ing ex­posed to dif­fer­ent things that I can do that are pro­duc­tive in my com­mu­nity, it’s re­ally eye-open­ing and it helps out a lot,” said Briseno. In 2013 the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice be­gan pro­vid­ing sub­si­dies for Soul River, which has al­to­gether taken some 300 young peo­ple and vets on ex­pe­di­tions in Ore­gon, Alaska and now Florida. Brown wor­ries about the ef­fect Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed deep bud­get cuts would have on his pro­gram.

Money is tight

Trump’s pro­posed 2018 bud­get for the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice calls for $1.3 bil­lion in fund­ing-a 13 per­cent cut com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year. The pro­grams that would be elim­i­nated in­clude Soul River. Trump’s bud­get pro­posal still needs to un­dergo con­gres­sional re­view and de­bate, but bud­get cuts even this year are hurt­ing Soul River. The Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice in Alaska promised half of what it gave in 2016, said Brown.

“That hurt me. It hurt me a lot,” said Brown. He starts cry­ing and fails to fin­ish his sen­tence. Kris­ten Gil­bert, a Fish and Wildlife of­fi­cial in­volved in the Alaska trips, said she is sorry about the fund­ing cuts. “I think what Chad does, par­tic­u­larly with vet­er­ans and youth, is re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause he comes at a dif­fer­ent an­gle than just the re­cre­ation as­pect,” Gil­bert said. She es­pe­cially praised the “heal­ing and na­ture as­pect” of Soul River.

To com­pen­sate, Brown is seek­ing pri­vate do­na­tions and cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships. Brown made the Ever­glades trip with fi­nanc­ing from a fish­ing tackle com­pany, and plans to take another group to the Arc­tic this year. But the over­all num­ber of trips is down to half of what it was in 2016. Brown said this is a per­sonal beef be­cause Trump made bet­ter treatment of war vets one of his main cam­paign prom­ises. “It’s very dis­ap­point­ing,” he said. —AFP

BOYNTON BEACH: War vet­eran Chad Brown, left, and Ri­ley Brooks ride through the Ever­glades dur­ing an air­boat tour at the Arthur R. Mar­shall Lox­a­hatchee Na­tional Wildlife Refugee in Boynton Beach, Florida.—AFP photos

BOYNTON BEACH: A youth group makes their way dur­ing a ca­noe trial into the Ever­glades.

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