Afghanistan War Hero Brad Snyder Speaks at Veterans Day Event

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Brad Snyder

Retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder made clear to all attending William Blair's Veterans' Alliance reception on November 13 why he has become an inspiration not just to U.S. soldiers but to the country at large.

Snyder, 33, was blinded on September 7, 2011, while serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer with SEAL Team Ten. He stepped on a 40-pound IED which took both his eyes, shattered his eardrum, and lacerated his face. Snyder spent three weeks in intensive care and weeks more in recovery.

But just a year later on September 7, 2012, he won his first gold medal in swimming at the London Paralympic Games. He went on to win a total of five gold medals and two silver medals during the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Snyder also broke the 30-year-old world record in the 100m freestyle in Rio.

The trim and athletic Snyder, wearing his blue USA team pullover, walked to the podium at William Blair's Veterans Day celebration with his guide dog Gizzy, a German shepherd. But his theme was service, not his own accomplishments.

Explore the meaning of service

"When we say service, this idea of working towards investing yourself in the community moment by moment—you don't always have to reap a direct reward. You may never know how far your investment goes. But I challenge you guys to continue to explore the meaning of service so maybe you can help a guy like me wind up on the podium in London," Snyder told the gathering.

Recollection of the Afghanistan attack where he was injured and its long aftermath, he said, underscored this reverence for service.

"I thought I died that day," he said. "I fell asleep in Afghanistan and woke up in Maryland at Walter Reed Hospital 60 hours later."

Snyder spoke of his buddies who cleared him from the battlefield. The pilot and the flight crew who rescued him. The surgeons and medical crew in Kandahar who spent 12 hours putting his face back together before he was transported to Germany for more surgery before heading home. A surgeon at Walter Reed who tried to save his vision. His mother, brothers, sister, and friends who supported him. His former swimming coach from St. Petersburg, Florida, who encouraged him to take his first swim after the explosion.

Standing at attention during the London Paralympics

And only one year later he stood on the Olympic podium in London surrounded by 18,000 screaming fans.

"As I stood at attention, listening to the anthem play, I thought about all the people who helped me get there," Snyder said. "I realized individuals never accomplish anything truly great. It's when communities leverage their collaborative effort towards a cohesive goal—that's where magic happens. That's where gold medals are possible."

Snyder's story has inspired people across the country and he recently co-authored a memoir, Fire In My Eyes, with Tom Sileo that has gained more acclaim. He also teaches leadership and ethics classes at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense, said of his book: "Brad Snyder is an American hero. I first met him at Walter Reed and thanked him for this brave service to the nation. His story is the American story of a patriot who never gave up fighting to live and to win for his country."

As Snyder told First Lady Michelle Obama when they met in 2012: "I am not going to let my blindness build a brick wall around me. I'd give my eyes one hundred times again to have the chance to do what I have done, and what I can still do."

Patriotism, determination, service

At William Blair that same patriotism, determination, and devotion to service inspired the crowd as when he related the story of his best friend Tyler Trahan, who he met in Navy Diving School and later died in Afghanistan.

"When Tyler came back to the United States, he was in a coffin with a flag draped over it. When I came back, I was on a gurney," Snyder told the hushed crowd. "I came back with four limbs that work, a heart that works, a brain that works, a family that loves me and an endless set of opportunities in front of me to make the most of my life.

"How selfish of me to victimize myself because of the loss of my vision, and Tyler didn't come back at all. I made a commitment to him in that moment that regardless of the fact I can't see, I was going to make the most of every moment I have left."

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