Yes, I Really Catch Pythons to Treat My PTSD

Jorge Martinez, 31, served a tour in Iraq as a corporal in the Marines. Now he is a student at Miami-Dade College who also hunts pythons with Swamp Apes, a group that helps remove invasive species and clear wilderness trails in the Everglades.

I come from a mechanical background, maintenance. When I was in Iraq, my team had to supply power to the radars, radio systems and the control tower. That meant we were targets. The enemy knew if they knocked down the tower, they could cripple the airfield.

On the ground, we got attacked with mortars and missiles—a few times a week. One night, I was working a shift in the shipping container that was our office. I heard an unbelievable loud noise, a boom. The mortars hit so close that the dirt, sand and debris splashing around sounded like handfuls of rocks being thrown at the container. We immediately went to the makeshift bomb shelter in the back of the container, located about six feet under the ground. At that moment, I felt like I was in a grave, like the mortar was going to bury us in there. I felt helpless because I couldn’t defend myself.

When I got back, these experiences became nightmares. A lot of them included people shooting at me and me not being able to defend myself and running. Sometimes, I would fall off the side of a cliff into a hole. I never hit bottom. I just kept falling and falling, and I’d wake up out of breath. One time, at a friend’s Super Bowl party, one of the little kids running around slammed the door, and I jumped out of my seat and started sweating in a panic. The loud noise triggered that.

Stuff like that kept happening to me for a long time. That’s the reality of getting diagnosed with PTSD.

Now I dream of pythons. I’ll be walking through huge bushes or a bunch of brush, and I can literally see tons of snakes coming in and out. But then I catch them. And I’m not afraid, because I’ve done it in real life.

Out in the Everglades, it’s almost impossible to hear loud noises. It’s very peaceful, almost like meditation. I have a mission to accomplish, and that mission is to catch a python. That’s the only thing on my mind. I stay alert, always vigilant, something that comes natural now after being trained in the military.

In many ways, I feel like I’m doing the fighting back I didn’t get to do in Iraq. It’s a huge adrenaline rush to confront a wild snake that could potentially strangle me, and ultimately kill me. The biggest one I’ve caught was almost 13 feet long. We named it Delilah. It’s a kind of feeling I just want to keep feeling again. I feel like a warrior. I want to pound my chest and say, “Wow, I’m king of the world!”

Of course, we don’t hurt the snakes. We catch ‘em live, and turn ‘em in live. It’s a thrill, but at the end of the day, we’re doing good—helping the Everglades prosper by getting these invasive species out of there. That’s the military mindset: to serve and to protect the United States.

—as told to Olivia B. Waxman

David Guttenfelder for TIMEA stop sign on a back road in the Chekika area of Florida’s Everglades National Park on Saturday Oct. 4, 2014.

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