Feb. 19, 2008 -- The discovery of a military-style "spider hole" that may have been used by a missing ex-Marine who is likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder has restored hope for the combat veteran's family that he is alive.
Eric Hall, 24, disappeared on Feb. 3 in Port Charlotte, Fla. He was staying with his grandmother when he experienced what his family and authorities have described as a "combat flashback." The Marine, who was left with a permanent limp from a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq, began walking around the house shooting an imaginary gun at imaginary enemies.
Hall then took off on his motorcycle, which later was found with engine running lying in the middle of a road in Deep Creek, near Fort Myers, on Florida's west coast.
The local sheriff's office called off its search more than a week ago, but Hall's mother, Becky, and a cadre of volunteers led in part by retired members of the military continue to look for the former Marine in an area densely covered with trees and shrubs.
On Monday, one of those volunteers discovered what is generally known in the military as a spider hole, a dugout camouflaged hiding place. It measured approximately 2-and-a-half feet deep, 3 feet wide and 6 feet long. Near the hole, which was in a wooded area about four miles from where the motorcycle had been found, was a Reebok footprint matching the shoes Hall was reportedly wearing when he disappeared. There was also a hole in the ground that had been used as a military-style toilet.
Tracking dogs from the Southwest Florida K-9 Search Unit were called in, a spokeswoman for the group told ABC News. Using the scent from an article of clothing provided by Hall's family, the dogs immediately alerted to Hall's track, according to Becky Hall and Ret. Army Sgt. 1st Class Tim Baker, one of the volunteers involved in the search. A truck bed liner was found near the spider hole that could have been used to hide Hall's location during the day.
"What my gut tells me is that he was experiencing Iraq," Becky Hall told ABC News, "that he's still in that mode."
Baker had been working the hunting trails in the surrounding area and said multiple footprints have been found that not only match up with Reebok footwear but also indicate the path of a person walking with a limp.
Hall is thought to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a June 2005 explosion that killed a fellow Marine and injured Hall's right arm, left leg, hip and the left side of his abdomen, according to his family.
His injuries were so severe that he spent 13 weeks in military hospitals in Germany and Bethesda, Md. He has undergone nearly 20 operations since the explosion and was granted a medical retirement by the U.S. Marine Corps. Before serving in Iraq, Hall served in Afghanistan, according to his mother.
Hall frequently would wake up in the night after having nightmares about combat, his aunt, Marge Baker, told ABC News earlier this month. He had moved to Florida in January with the hope of putting his military experiences behind him. "While it is a disabling [injury], he didn't want it to be the forefront of him," Marge Baker said. "He wanted a job, he wanted to get back into society and be meaningful to society."
Becky Hall said she had begun to lose hope that her son would be found alive and been considering returning home to Indiana, where Hall's father continues to wait in case their missing son calls or even returns to the house.
With the new development, however, the ex-Marine's mother said she is not going anywhere. "This gives me considerable hope that he's still here in Florida," she said.
Tim Baker, who has special forces experience, said Hall may be trying to hide from the people looking for him.
"I am 100 percent positive that he is in that area," Tim Baker said. "But he's feeling the pressure of everybody being in the woods, so he's going to continue to dig deeper."
While it's impossible to know exactly how old the spider hole and footprints are, they appear to be fresh in the past few days, according to Becky Hall and Tim Baker.
Bob Carpenter, a spokesman for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News that the department is aware of Monday's discovery, but could not comment on whether authorities believe the spider hole is necessarily connected to the former Marine.
"We're advised of it," Carpenter said of the spider hole, adding that investigators have pursued well over 100 tips without locating Hall.
The behavior Hall has exhibited is consistent with PTSD, which is often associated with combat veterans, according to Nadine J. Kaslow, a professor at Emory University's Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.
Kaslow described three ways in which PTSD can manifest in men and women back from war: "re-experience," in which a person continues to think intensely about combat situations; "avoidance," in which emotions associated with trauma are beaten back; and "hyper-arousal," in which a person may act abnormally paranoid or jumpy.
Flashbacks can be a common symptom of PTSD, Kaslow said, but added that hallucinations may go beyond the disorder into some type of psychosis.
Eric Hall is described as a white male, standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 150 pounds. He has numerous tattoos, a scar on his leg from the combat explosion and may be wearing a black leather jacket.