Brad Snyder couldn’t see the grateful crowd that stood on Wednesday to applaud him in Charlotte.
On Sept. 7, 2011, the blast from an IED (improvised explosive device) took both his eyes. Snyder, a member of the Navy’s elite bomb-disposal squad, was trying to rescue an injured Afghan commando in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan when he stepped on the hidden bomb.
Yet he didn’t fly in from his home in Baltimore with any bitterness, only an appreciation for possibility – and community.
It’s a community of battlefield comrades, surgeons, family, friends, rehabilitation specialists – even an old swim coach – that has spent the past 17 months putting him back together and helping him back to his feet. And into the pool, where a year after he was injured he won two gold medals, and one silver, in blind swimming events in the 2012 London Paralympics.
Snyder, 29, was in Charlotte Wednesday to speak at a luncheon hosted by the Charlotte office of the Federal Reserve Bank. The event was a tribute to returning veterans, including Snyder, and Charlotte Bridge Home, the nonprofit that helps those veterans transition into civilian life in the region.
He talked about the power of community.
“Mine has been an incredible source of motivation, inspiration and a great platform to reach success during a trying time,” Snyder said. “My entire path … has been traced by an incredible amount of effort from (my) community and not just one, but a whole bunch of them.
“My primary mission at the beginning was to show all these people that I’m going to be OK.”
Marine Col. Anthony Henderson, special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s warrior and family support office, told the gathering that Charlotte’s effort has become a model for other cities figuring out how to help transitioning veterans.
“Charlotte gets it,” Henderson said. “… It looks at the future opportunities of taking these (veterans) that have all the characteristics of courage, innovation and adaptability – and leveraging them into the community as future pastors, as deans of students, as business leaders who will outcompete anyone globally.”
Becomes a bomb squad officer
Snyder, still active duty, is starting his transition out of the Navy.
The military, he said, tested his limits. It taught him to persevere to get past the obstacles of his blindness – “to be the best cane walker ever.”
He grew up competitive, especially as a swimmer. He was good enough to swim at the Naval Academy.
His freshman year, he sat in class and watched on TV as the World Trade Center fell on 9/11.
“We were the first class to go to the service academies knowing we were at war,” Snyder said in an interview before the luncheon. “We were suddenly fighting two wars and everyone knew they would get into the fight at some point.”
He concentrated on naval architecture, and swam for the Navy team, which he captained his senior year. Diving school led him to the bomb squad. “I wanted to spend as much time as I could under water,” he said. “So I could either become a Navy SEAL or go into the bomb squad.”
He came home safely from a first tour in Iraq in spring 2009, but two springs later, in 2011, he was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan.
Last thing he saw
In September, Brad was among a 40-man foot patrol – half of them Afghan commandos. They were in an area of Kandahar known to be covered with IEDs, and he was one of two Navy bomb disposal specialists.
Snyder was taking a break, while his partner Adam worked a metal detector. Suddenly, he heard an explosion and ran toward his partner, worried he was injured.
Two Afghans lay on the ground injured. He helped get one to a Medic, and was on his way to help the other when he stepped on a hidden bomb and felt the heat burn his face.
Snyder looked down and took an inventory. “I could see my arms and legs and wiggle my toes,” he said. “The Medic wanted me to stand up. I stood up slowly, which added a bit of confidence.”
It was the last thing he never saw. He now has prosthetic eyes, and wears glasses to protect them.
Boundaries in swimming
Nearly two weeks later, he woke up in a Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md.
He was told his left eye had been removed, but surgeons were hopeful they could save some vision in the right eye.
The surgery failed.
Surrounding him was the beginnings of his community – mostly his family.
“We took a moment to mourn,” Snyder said. “After that, I was determined that every movement from then on was going to be forward.”
He was flown to a VA hospital in Tampa, Fla., to be near his family. There his old swim coach urged him into a pool.
It was the best thing he could have done.
“You have boundaries in swimming; it’s a box and there’s a wall on either side,” he said. “I’m free in the pool. I don’t have to ask anyone to guide me.
“Everyone was really excited to see me in the pool and getting better.”
And he could swim fast, launching into blind swimming events. His brother Russell quit his job in Kansas and moved to Baltimore – where Snyder is an intern at a small software company – to drive Brad to swim meets.
By September 2012, he was in London, a member of the U.S. Paralympics team. Exactly 365 days after his injury, he won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle, racing against the world’s best blind swimmers.
That week, he also won a gold in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver in the 50-meter.
Ever the optimist, he said his blindness gave him an opportunity he wouldn’t have had with his sight. “In sighted swimming, I never would have been an Olympian,” he said.
Two lights on
Snyder lives his life for those he knew who didn’t come back.
“I was able to come home and run marathons and date a beautiful girl,” he said. “I don’t take that lightly.”
He’s kept his humor. He told the Charlotte luncheon that learning to walk with a cane or swim weren’t the most difficult things to learn as a blind man. Putting toothpaste on a brush was – half the tube “ended up in the sink.”
He asked a rehab specialist for help. “He said, ‘Just squirt the toothpaste in your mouth,’ and that solved it,” Snyder said.
In Charlotte, he’s staying with Charlotte Bridge Home founders Tommy and Patti Norman.
Tuesday night, with Snyder in bed, Tommy asked Brad if he wanted the lights turned out.
“Believe me, it won’t make any difference if they’re all on,” Snyder said.
Tommy left two lights lit.
Need Help ?
To make tax-deductible donations to Charlotte Bridge Home, call 704-332-8802 or go to www.charlottebridgehome.org and click on “Donate.” Or send checks to Charlotte Bridge Home, 1512 E. Fourth 4th St., Charlotte NC 28204.