Taking flight: Veteran has found a calling in his work with birds
At New Hampshire Audubon's Carter Hill Raptor Observatory in Concord, Robert Vallieres takes a moment from monitoring migrating hawks to show off a molted feather belonging to a five-year-old peregrine falcon known as V-34. "It was the bird that stole my heart, besides my wife," Vallieres said.
Vallieres coaxes a red-tailed hawk at New Hampshire Audubon into doing a "step-up," an essential training technique for handling the rehabilitated bird, on October 29, 2013. The birds Vallieres cares for at Audubon are deemed unreleasable, meaning they would not be able to survive in the wild.
Vallieres, who began his volunteer career monitoring peregrine falcons, studies a wild peregrine falcon female from a parking lot overlooking the Merrimack River in Manchester on November 4, 2013.
Vallieres takes part in a free yoga class for veterans at Sharing Yoga in Concord on Veterans Day, November 11, 2013. "It makes me forget about everything," Vallieres said.
Studying the line of portraits at the Memorial Wall at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center on November 19, 2013, Vallieres recognizes late Sgt. Randy Rosenberg, the son of an old friend who was killed serving in Iraq. Vallieres says he usually stops at the wall when visiting the VA for appointments at the mental health clinic.
A scrapbook photo from the Gulf War in 1990 shows Vallieres standing next to his handiwork: two birds carved into a door in his desert camp.
A red-tailed hawk perched in the Manchester VA parking lot gets Vallieres's full attention after his appointment at the mental health clinic there on December 6, 2013.
Vallieres helps spot red-tailed hawks and other migrating raptor species with Cal Peterka of Portsmouth as part of the Hawk Watch at Carter Hill Raptor Observatory in Concord on October 29, 2013. "It's amazing how it's healed me," Vallieres said, about the volunteering he does with birds of prey.
Vallieres stands near a five-year-old rehabilitated female peregrine falcon, identified as V-34, at New Hampshire Audubon on November 1, 2013. The bird has only one wing and is deemed unreleasable.
At his home in Concord, Vallieres holds a peregrine falcon statuette gifted to him by his friends from Hawk Watch while hugging Steven Manifold on November 15, 2013. Vallieres was hosting a party for Hawk Watch staff and volunteers to celebrate the end of the monitoring season, which runs from September 1 to October 31.
Outside his home in Concord, Vallieres stands near a wooden cutout shaped like a peregrine falcon after a party for Hawk Watch participants on November 15, 2013. He used the cutout to project a silhouette of a peregrine that was visible from the road.
After imitating the call of a barred owl, Vallieres shouts with excitement when a rehabilitated barred owl called back from its enclosure nearby at New Hampshire Audubon in Concord on November 1, 2013.
Stay positive. That’s the message Robert Vallieres takes from his doctor as he leaves his regular appointment at a mental health clinic on a gray day in December. He is expressionless as he walks. But as he turns the corner in front of the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center, something catches his eye.
“Did you see that?” he asked excitedly.
His hands fly over his head, and he beams as he watches a large bird fly fast and low just a few dozen feet ahead. Vallieres knows immediately that it is a red-tailed hawk, because he has spent roughly 16 years working with birds of prey, first monitoring, and then taking care of falcons, eagles and hawks, such as the one that has stopped to perch on top of a light post in the VA parking lot.
Standing below the bird, Vallieres notes its size and determines that it’s a female. He presses air through his teeth, calling to it in a high-pitched “psst, psst, psst.”
And as he cranes his neck to watch it, waiting for it to fly away, his own plumage of sorts is visible – lines of scar tissue score his throat from surgery that saved his life in 2012.
“Now I have a third chance. Not one chance. Not two chances. I have a third chance,” said Vallieres, 51, who lives in Concord.
Vallieres’s first chance saw him graduate from Concord High School in 1981, marry his wife, Carol, in 1982, and enlist in the Army in 1983. He planned to make the military his career.
“I re-enlisted . . . back in 1988 for another five years to stay in the service,” he said, “because I was going to do the whole 20.”
His second chance at life came late in 1990, during the Gulf War, when he was a topographical engineer for the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps in Saudi Arabia.
“A huge beam came flying off a truck in the war zone area and coldcocked me in the left temple area. Now, it didn’t break my skull open to where I was like ‘Ughhh,’ you know, and they had to put my brain back. But I had to put my brain back.”
A page in Vallieres’s scrapbook shows a Black Hawk helicopter kicking up desert dust as it airlifts him to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where he stayed roughly two weeks in October. Another page shows him back with his unit, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with jars of preserves his family had sent from home.
But after the accident, he developed symptoms arising from an aneurysm he had been diagnosed with years earlier. His aorta bulged and could have ruptured. He returned to the hospital in mid-December before returning to the United States in January.
Vallieres struggles to remember the details of his journey home. “It’s all these little pieces of puzzles that are baffling to me,” he said.
He remembers the heat of the desert and the fact that he was drenched with sweat as they rolled his stretcher onto the military aircraft. He remembers they tried to keep him upright once he was onboard. And that his wife and relatives finally caught up with him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before his life-saving surgery. His scrapbook shows the long scar from his operation, starting on his back and wrapping around to his chest.
After getting released from Walter Reed, he was still suffering from post-concussion migraines and trying a range of medications to treat them. In addition to the effects of his traumatic brain injury, he was experiencing issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder. He had hoped to remain in the Army, perhaps doing office work after being declared medically unfit for duty. Instead, he was honorably discharged in 1994.
“A veteran comes back with scars beyond what they see,” Vallieres said.
He started going to the Manchester VA three or four times a week. Through its vocational rehabilitation program, he took art classes at Notre Dame College in Manchester, getting his bachelor’s degree in drawing and illustration in 2000.
And his son Andrew, born in 1992, also became a positive influence in his recovery. As Carol worked as a legal assistant, Robert became a stay-at-home dad.
“So that was helping me out,” he said. “My boy was born. Oh, gosh. I was walking on air.”
Though he didn’t like leaving the house, he would venture out to get things for Andrew. Then Carol gave him a book about birds and a small pair of binoculars to take advantage of the high vantage point of their second-story apartment in Concord.
“Andrew had always asked me more about the birds,” he said. “And then I’d just say, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to teach you about the birds and the bees.’ ”
They were literal birds and literal bees, as Andrew was only a few years old.
Someone suggested that Vallieres take Andrew on a trip organized by New Hampshire Audubon to see birds in the White Mountains. That became another life-changing moment.
“The nightmares and the night sweats and the stuff people don’t want to hear about – it’s just too difficult,” he said. “I was hoping to overcome that. And that’s what going on the tour did for me. It gave me some new hope.”
They were in Franconia Notch when Vallieres saw something that escaped the rest of the group.
“They’re looking in the bush at some warbler,” he said. “And I can’t remember exactly what kind of warbler they were looking at. I was focusing somewhere (else), and all of a sudden, I saw this puff of feathers.”
The puff was a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world, taking down a yellow-shafted flicker. Vallieres imprinted on the falcon, and it is still his favorite species of raptor. A few weeks later, the experience pushed him to approach New Hampshire Audubon wildlife biologist Chris Martin, who was coordinating a statewide peregrine monitoring project.
“He just came in and said, ‘I want to help with your project,’ ” said Martin, who is now a good friend of Vallieres’s.
Without a background in biology, Vallieres was starting from scratch.
“He was willing to take however much time it took to see what he needed to see, and had no problem with that,” Martin said. “So that actually put him in a good place to do some good work for us in terms of observations.”
Martin attributed some of Vallieres’s steadfastness to his military background, and said that Vallieres approached it like a job.
“He would be willing to hike 3 or 4 miles and go up 1,000 feet and sit in the cold for an hour and a half after he gets there,” Martin said. “There are very few other volunteers that I’ve worked with at New Hampshire Audubon who are as driven to go farther and do more than he is.”
Vallieres would take Andrew and his toys along as he helped monitor peregrine nest sites in the spring. Eventually, his volunteering included taking care of birds at the Audubon facility in Concord. When he saw a bald eagle had just one perch, he built it another one, and continued adding on. Now the eagle hops from branch to branch in its enclosure, ascending around an artificial trunk in a clockwise spiral. Andrew, now 21 and studying fisheries, has caught countless fish that his father feeds to the bird.
In 2007, Vallieres was recognized as New Hampshire Audubon’s Volunteer of the Year. In 2009, he received the Spirit of New Hampshire Award from Volunteer NH.
“I’m trying to put the ‘able’ in disabled,” Vallieres said. He points out the black tape he used on his “Disabled Veteran” license plate to make it read “Abled Veteran.”
Eventually, Vallieres was working at the Audubon every day. He also continued his monitoring efforts, including the annual fall hawk watch at the Audubon’s Carter Hill Raptor Observatory, where he had been the official counter since the observatory’s inception in 2008.
“When they didn’t have somebody to feed the birds, or to work with the birds, I was it,” Vallieres said.
Then, in 2012, came Vallieres’s third chance at life.
Just a few weeks before he was going to lead another hawk watch season in September, he suffered a second aneurysm in his aorta. This time, the aneurysm ruptured. To save him, his surgeon went through his neck to create a bypass for the damaged artery.
He wrote a poem Sept. 5, 2012, the first day he stood up after his operation. It read in part:
I survived a second aneurysm of the aorta.
I am lucky
Now to find joy in all things
He wanted to get back to work immediately, even though stiffness in his neck after surgery kept him from looking up – a simple but frequent act when scanning the sky for birds. Eventually, he resumed raptor caretaking duties, first at the Audubon, and later at Wings of Dawn, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Henniker.
“When I have a bird on my arm, I forget all of my problems,” Vallieres said.
His handwriting shook as he recorded notes in a log at Audubon in November because of shakiness in his arm. When he wasn’t holding a bird in his left hand, he used it to steady the other as he wrote.
After another appointment at the VA in Manchester, the same shakiness was evident as he signed the guest book at the center’s Memorial Wall, which honors fallen soldiers from Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
“I’m at about maybe 50 or 60 percent,” he said. “Going. I’m not fully here. I mean, I’m good, I’m strong. But I got this little shakiness.”
Yoga has been therapeutic. He’s been going about a year, relaxing his mind and loosening his neck. On Veterans Day, he wrote a poem while watching for peregrines at Frankenstein Cliff in Crawford Notch State Park, and then attended his regular evening class at Sharing Yoga, which offers a free class for veterans every Monday.
And he has once again started playing hockey – his favorite sport – on Tuesday mornings. His hockey friends know him as the bird man.
Andrew joined him on the ice during a recent visit home from school in New York. The moments together are special; you might even say his son has driven his recovery.
“I do my son some justice, you know,” Vallieres said. “Because I just want to be a good example.”
They played on opposing teams, but when Andrew scored a goal, his father celebrated by making the loud hooting call of a barred owl.
(Will Parson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)