The world looks different to a guy with five purple hearts.
Meet Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, U.S. Army special forces (ret). In the heat of the Vietnam war he was leading Montagnard tribesmen on combat missions into Laos and Cambodia.
"You know, the illegal missions? That was us. We'd jump in and try to pinpoint enemy positions. When we got one we called in the coordinates for an air strike. Then when the strike came the enemy knew we were in there somewhere. They did everything they could to find us."
"Five purple hearts?" gasped a ex-Marine who served in Vietnam. "That's crazy. You have to ask for that. Three and you're out. That was the deal."
Five purple hearts, the silver star, the bronze star.
For a time after he left the Army, Van Buskirk, son of an Air Force colonel from McLean, Va., hid the decorations in a trunk. But as the wounds healed over the years, so did the psychological scars. Now he displays his medals proudly in his home in Vero Beach.
For a while Van Buskirk didn't like firearms anymore, either. Now he likes them again.
They call it reentry. Van Buskirk had trouble with the real world. "When you've been living on the edge like that, watching your friends die, it's hard to readjust. We used to get up in the morning, stick our fingers down our throats and vomit just so we'd have that taste in our mouths, so we'd be mean and mad."
Van Buskirk is married to a niece of fomer U.S. senator George Smathers of Flordia. They live in a big seaside home and he is a volunteer pilot for a born-again religious group called the Christain Prison Ministry, which specializes in preaching to convicts.
For fun, Van Buskirk goes after wild hogs on the brushy palmetto plains of central Florida. You could call it hunting. Actually it's a little more like calling in air strikes.
"All you have to do is get to Melbourne Airport," Van Buskirk said. "I'll pick you up in one of my planes. We'll scout the ranch by air and locate some hogs. My hunting buggy is right at the hangar. Once we have them spotted we go out and get'em with the buggy."
There wasn't time to scout the first day because Bud Adams, owner of the 22,000-acre cattle ranch where the hunt was to be, had a land-tour planned.
During the tour Van Buskirk managed to spot some areas where wild hogs had been rooting in the pastureland, digging up the turf with their snouts in pursuit of food.
How wild are these pigs? "They're just as wild as anything, now," said Adams."They come from mostly domestic stock, along with some wild Russian boars introduced here some time back."
The hogs aren't native but the interbreeding of imported wild species with domestic stocks that escaped their pens has created a vigorous, uncivilized breed.
"A deputy sheriff was hunting them last week and a big boar bit off his finger right here," Adams said, pointing at a knuckle.
Tour completed, Van Buskirk, his wife's teen-age daughter Britt and I mounted the buggy and set off to hunt the last hour of daylight. The machine was a weird, camouflaged contraption with three-foot-high tires, a Porsche engine, gun racks, banks of headlights and a shooting platform in back.
Van Buskirk rattled on about how dangerous the hogs were. From the armaments he brought you'd think so. He carried a collapsible, 30-shot semiautomatic rifle that looked like a sub-machine gun. He had a .38 caliber revolver, three knives, and, in his pocket, some sort of small grenade for blowing wounded hogs out of thick cover. He never used the grenade.
In the gun rack was a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with five rounds of double-O buckshot and a Mannlicher .308 hunting rifle with scope. He strapped a .44 magnum six-shooter on my belt.
Armed, we were off.
The idea, said Van Buskirk, was to find some hogs, get downwind of them and sneak up and shoot them. It didn't exactly work out that way.
He drove around for about a half-hour, bombing through the waist-high palmettos and myrtle and mostly over tall grass the cattle feed on. It was pleasant, if bumpy, with an orange sunset building and occasional flights of sandhill cranes, egrets and ibises soaring across the immense landscape.
"There they are," Van Buskirk shouted.
Instantly he had the buggy screaming full bore over the brush. Van Buskirk kept the wheel in his left hand and the semiautomatic in the right. Hogs were busting out of the brush in every direction, mostly little ones about the size of a beagle dog. But there were two big ones in the bunch.
"That's the boar, that's the boar, shoot him," Van Buskirk yelled, swinging the wheel and zooming off in pursuit of a racing black pig.
He started shooting. Round after round of shell casing came whipping out of the ejection chamber, smacking the side of my head.
I shielded my eyes. Britt was making pleading noises from her seat in the back.
Eventually the shooting stopped and Van Buskirk brought the buggy to a stop. Five yards away a pig was down, its back legs rendered useless by a bullet through the spine.
"Kill it," he said. I fired two rounds of buckshot at the animal's head but it seemed to make no difference. Van Buskirk jumped down, took aim with his pistol and put two bullets behind the pig's ear. It collapsed.
It turned out to be not a boar, but a sow. Van Buskirk leaped on it immediately and, within minutes, had it field dressed. He was clearly having a very good time.
As it happened that was the only wild pig killed, making it a poor two days of hunting by Van Buskirk's standards. Next day we went scouting by air, located two or three groups of hogs but then we held up waiting for a third person in the party and never did get good hunting late in the day.
Adams, the rancher, permits wild hogs on the place because they provide meat and sport for his cowboys. He could trap them out, but doesn't. They do some damage to the pastures so he welcomes hunters.
The cowboys are real sport hog hunters. They chase the hogs into deep cover, then send vicious pit bulldogs in after them. The dogs latch onto a pig's ear and then the cowboy dives in, lassos the wild pig and ties it up.
He can then bring it home, put it in a pen and butcher it when he needs the meat.
That's how the deputy lost his finger.
Indeed, when you hear some good Southern hog stories you realize that man and pig are almost natural enemies. One Southern explanation when someone asks about a missing person is to say, "He went to sleep and the hogs ate him." Hogs will eat just about anything, alive or dead, and they have extremely sharp teeth and tusks.
I think it'll be a while before I go wild hog hunting again. "It's a little raw for me. Still, the central Florida countryside is compelling and that alone made the hunt memorable.
Just at dusk on our second evening Van Buskirk and I was scanning the fields, imagining every shadow or myrtle bush or deer was hog. I looked up the sand road just in time to see the shape slip across in clear view. It was fast, graceful and sleek.