U.S. Air Force veteran Matt Burke calls it “Oorah” therapy and it goes like this.
In the early hours of the morning or middle of the night, he loads up his boat with bait, fishing rods, harpoons, and a bang stick.
When his guests arrive, from close by or out of state, they are greeted with an instant acceptance into the brother or sisterhood of having served in the military or as first responder and what suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) means.
Burke, 44, knows where they are coming from because he’s been there too after serving multiple tours in Afghanistan as a mechanic and getting injured both physically and mentally.
He acknowledges mainstream tactics used to treat PTSD, such as Wounded Warriors and counseling through the VA medical centers, but says warriors need something else.
“Painting, yoga, talking, art, petting a horse,” Burke says about what other programs offer. “Vets need to jump from a plane or kill.”
Burke became an ordained minister to be able to officiate his daughter’s wedding and, as a Christian, he turned to God for an answer about helping others.
That’s how the non-profit 10 CAN, Inc., was formed and why the creed for the national organization is “Honor, Revive, Grow.”
The CAN stands for Christian Adventure Network and it pledges to save heroes, raise the next generation of warriors and to “restore families through the great outdoors.”
On a recent hunt for alligators at Lake Sampson in Bradford County, Burke met up with Gainesville Police Department officers Tony Ferro and Lou Acevedo. Before the hunt, they held a safety briefing and Acevedo said a prayer for a safe hunt.
Burke explained how the cow lung bait would be launched and what the strategy was once a gator took the bait. Ferro and Acevedo checked out the harpoons and got familiar with the other equipment involved.
Burke sat perched on the high back seat of the boat while Ferro and Acevedo sat below. With the engine off, the only sound came from birds flying by and the hum of the wind against the fishing rod strings that created a soft whistle.
Binoculars were up and all three were in full recon.
Burke calls the outing a “backyard opportunity” and during the COVID-19 pandemic the need for more outings became apparent, so Burke launched a Florida CAN network to provide trips that were close to home for those who needed them as opposed to some of the donated adventures that 10 CAN used out of state such as salmon fishing up north.
Retired U.S. Army veteran Patrick Spiro, 34, has been on two gator hunts with 10 CAN and has a gator skull and hide displayed at his home to prove it.
Spiro served as a mechanic and in convoy security and said he suffered from a torn shoulder and PTSD from his service in Afghanistan.
He started volunteering for 10 CAN behind the scenes because of his anxiety but worked up to going on an alligator hunt which he said changed everything.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Spiro, who moved to Gainesville after he left the military to get treatment at the Malcom Randall VAMC.
On one hunt, Spiro met up with the 10 CAN crew at the lower portion of the St. Johns River where it meets Rodman Dam.
“I have stability issues from a head injury, but they came up with a plan,” he said. “As soon as I stood up the other vets would support me.”
During that hunt, Spiro recalled they used just harpoons and flashlights. “You could see the eyes and run up on them,” he said, and explained how the experience benefited him.
“When you bring somebody into the outdoors, you essentially put God in control,” Spiro said. “No cell phones or someone with a Ph.D.”
Since his outings with 10 CAN, which also include deer and pig hunts, Spiro said he started seeking out nature and would visit Rainbow River in Dunnellon so much that he eventually moved there.
His advice for PTSD survivors seeking to try the 10 CAN experience is, “If you’re not from the outdoors community, give it a chance and see how powerful it is. Even sitting in a deer stand getting torn up by mosquitoes and being in the moment of what’s going on is an amazing experience.”
When 10 CAN conducts the hunt, the meat from the animals killed are sent to a processor to be harvested and the meats, hides and skulls are sent to the hunter to have as a souvenir of their experience.
Spiro said it’s powerful, “When you’re eating this meat and you know you harvested it, you prayed with this animal and now you’re feeding your family, your neighbors.”
10 CAN also provides outings for family members affected by PTSD.
“Spouses suffer vicarious trauma,” Burke said, adding that other family members are often living in emotional turmoil that they can’t get past. “My own life almost ended that way, but I was able to get in front of it. That’s what this is about, faith and family.”
That’s how 17-year-old Brenna Nagle got involved in an alligator hunting trip with her U.S. Marine Corps father, Nicholas Nagel, who is a Purple Heart recipient.
10 CAN brought them to Florida from Ohio for a weekend that Brenna said she was fortunate to have experienced.
“It was a good bonding trip for my dad and I,” she said. “I have three brothers, so it was nice to get a trip with just him. Hunting is something we’ve always done together.”
Brenna said they went on morning and night trips on Lake Russo and on the last day of hunting they caught a gator measuring 8 feet, 9 inches.
Just like Spiro, Brenna describes the adrenaline rush as they captured the gator.
“When we harpooned it, it hogtied itself and I used the bang stick,” she recalled.
Burke hopes to grow more branches to the 10 CAN program like the Florida CAN.
“We had increased demand during the pandemic,” Burke said about trying to fulfill more outings. “But the problem was we couldn’t get people to us.”
Next on Burke’s agenda is to create a training program for trainers of warriors and PTSD sufferers.
“For folks like me, there’s no program for those serving in leadership,” Burke said. “There are thousands of leaders serving unselfishly, relentlessly,” he added and said his next organization will be building a leadership retreat center.
Veterans, first responders and medical personnel interested in registering for an upcoming hunt can visit the organization’s website.
Volunteers, donors or persons wishing to offer an outdoor experience can also reach Burke or board members.
Upcoming events are posted on 10 CAN social media as well.
There are no guarantees that every hunt will go as planned. For Acevedo and Ferro, who went gator hunting on the last weekend of the season which ended on Nov. 1, the gators on Lake Sampson eluded them. But they both said they had powerful takeaways from the experience.
For Ferro, “Just being out with nature and seeing gators from a distance and the brotherhood experience,” was enough.
And for Acevedo, who retired from the GPD but came back to serve in the reserves, “Being of like minds and having fun,” was his lesson, he said “And I learned that gators aren’t that dumb, they’re pretty smart.”