Robert Vallieres was down and out, without much hope. A severe head injury, courtesy of a flying beam to the head during the Gulf War, assured that his life would never be the same.
A couple of years later, on a bird-watching trip suggested by a volunteer at the Audubon Society, Vallieres was watching a small, vibrant-colored bird soar through the Franconia Notch sky - and, just like that, his life changed once again.
"A peregrine falcon swooped in from out of nowhere, knocked that bird from midair and left nothing but a puff of feathers," Vallieres recalls. "And then it turned around and caught that bird upside down and went over to a dead tree and just started pecking away at the damned thing."
The episode inspired fresh perspective and a new passion.
"When you see a peregrine falcon, with its chocolate eyes, you wonder what they see," Vallieres says. "We look up into the atmosphere and see the sky and clouds, yet that bird sees the most microscopic thing. They see the beauty of the environment, and it gives me so much passion and so much inspiration."
Vallieres' face lights up when he talks about the 37 pairs of peregrine falcons around the state, many of which he's helped locate. He enthusiastically describes the radiant orange-and-yellow chest of a Blackburnian warbler.
"It's like a setting sun," he offers.
His smile is contagious as he tosses a rock into the waters of the Suncook River and then excitedly points as the ripples reach a raft of ducks swimming nearby, causing them to become eerily still as they assess the situation, trying to determine if there's a threat nearby.
Vallieres, 52, has suffered through many post-concussion symptoms and a burst aortic aneurysm, among other ailments, since returning stateside. His life, he says, now is often consumed by bird-watching.
He volunteers at both the Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn and the Carter Hill Raptor Observatory in Concord, where he lives nearby with his wife and son. He says he desperately wants to share his experiences with others, which is why he penned a recently released book, with Jacquelyn M. Howard and Cindy Parsons, titled "Wounded Warriors: A Soldier's Story of Healing through Birds."
"I'm dedicating this book to the families of those who have served and didn't come home, and also to the veterans who have gone inside themselves and felt no hope to keep going," he said. "I know what it feels like to find yourself in a realm where disability sparks an option as to what's next - how can you keep going?"
Vallieres said he was gung-ho to serve his country out of high school. He felt a sense of patriotism, a love for God and for country that he still exudes today. Now he drives around with a New Hampshire disabled veteran license plate, with the "dis" blocked out to let anyone within range know that he's an "abled veteran."
"I only made it through 12 years," he says of his military experience. "The Gulf ended my career, but it's true that when one door shuts, another one opens. And let me tell you, bird-watching is an extraordinary thing, and I want to share it with others."
Vallieres sets out each day to do just that, sharing his vast knowledge of New Hampshire's airborne wildlife, particularly birds of prey, with anyone who will listen.
On May 16, he served as host to U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., as she toured the New Hampshire Audubon Society, guiding her through an up-close look inside a bald-eagle sanctuary.
He also was featured recently on "The Journey of the Broad Winged Hawk," a New Hampshire Public Television documentary. He was named "Volunteer of the Year" by New Hampshire Audubon in 2007 and by NH Volunteer in 2009.
"Even though I'm in constant pain and I have constant headaches, that only reminds me I'm a human being," he says. "And even though what I've been through is a sad part of life, there's a lot of good in the world, too, and my goal is to contribute by relating my experiences so that others can share in my hope."