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Paralympic Athlete Inspires Cadets

man speaking to an audience

Brad Snyder shares his story with a riveted audience in the Hall of Valor March 12, 2024.—VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

On Sept. 7, 2012, retired U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder won a gold medal for the men’s 400-meter freestyle in swimming at the Paralympic Games in London. While he enjoyed hearing the cheers of the crowd, standing on the podium as he received his medal, and hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” play as the American flag was raised, he couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of that day. It was exactly one year earlier to the day that Snyder lost his vision in a blast from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Snyder recently shared his journey from the battlefield in Afghanistan to the winner’s podium as the final speaker of the Courageous Leadership Speaker Series, presented by the Center for Leadership and Ethics. Col. David Gray, CLE director, introduced Snyder, noting that he epitomizes this year’s theme of “Adapting to Complex Situations.” Snyder’s engaging narrative captivated his audience of cadets, staff, faculty, and members of the community, including school-aged swimmers and their parents.

Snyder grew up in suburban Florida and was recruited as a high school senior to swim for the United States Naval Academy swim team. He was a member of the first group of midshipmen to arrive in Annapolis after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Snyder graduated in 2006 with a degree in naval architecture and commissioned into the Navy as an explosive ordnance disposal officer.

He originally wanted to become a Navy SEAL but changed his mind during his junior year when he met an officer in the EOD community. “I had given a lot of thought considering my unique strength and realized it was aquatic competence. I was exceptionally good in water. So, I looked for a career that would allow me to exploit that strength. The EOD community is remarkable, with an incredible skill set and excellent training. We embed with everyone, including Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. We’re prideful that we’re the priority brand as far as explosive mitigation is concerned. I also liked that my mission wasn’t to kill anyone but to protect people by removing these explosive hazards,” he explained.

He deployed to Iraq in fall 2008. “By the time I got there, it seemed like all the fighting was done, so instead of doing a lot of EOD response, we worked with Iraqi army bomb disposal and the municipal police on how to respond to IEDs.”

After six months in Iraq, Snyder returned to the United States. To his delight, his second deployment was with a SEAL team in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was his job to advise the ground force commander on how to avoid any potential explosive hazard or to mitigate that hazard. As the summer progressed and the weather warmed up, fighting increased. The Taliban knew they were at a disadvantage, so they started using IEDs everywhere. “There were IEDs on rooftops, there were IEDs built into the walls of houses, there were IEDs in dead cows, there were IEDs on pathways. If you landed a helicopter somewhere, you could bet there would be an IED there the next time. I conferred with my partner, Adam, on the safest way to get our assault team from point A to point B, given the IED threat. We decided the safest way was for us to walk in front of the patrol with a metal detector,” said Snyder. He and Adam cleared miles and miles of terrain, mission after mission throughout that summer and into that fall, trying to keep their assault team safe.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Snyder’s platoon started a routine mission in the Panjwai Valley. From a radio transmission, they learned there were 12 Taliban fighters in the area who knew an American force had landed, and they were intent on mounting an attack on them by pushing them into an area they had previously booby-trapped with IEDs. “Getting around the terrain in that area was very difficult, and people like me make it even more difficult because we live by the adage, ‘The path of least resistance is almost always booby-trapped.’ So, we’re very unpopular with Navy SEALs and special forces because we choose the most arduous way to patrol: Over mounds, over fences, never on the paths, never over bridges—always the hardest possible way because that’s actually the safest possible way,” he explained.

Snyder watched from halfway back in their patrol as Adam delicately led their platoon with a metal detector. They soon encountered a “choke point,” an area where that terrain dictates where they must go and a great place to be booby-trapped. “There was a 10-foot wall surrounding a giant field on the other side, and there was one area of the wall that had been previously blown out by another attack. It was the only way we could safely get around the wall.” Snyder watched as Adam led several others on the safest path around the wall.

“I felt called to action by the way [U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder] fervently equips himself with a sense of gratitude, vowing to treat each day like a gift.”

Cadet Kate Taylor ’24

“I got distracted for a moment when all of a sudden, boom! A giant black flume shot up into the air,” recalled Snyder. He feared Adam had stepped on an IED and wanted to rush to his friend to help him, but being well-trained, he knew that running up, trying to be a hero, and possibly stumbling upon another IED was the worst thing he could do, so he waited to make an assessment. He decided to clear a pathway for medics to get to any casualties, and upon reaching the other side of the wall, he was elated to see Adam standing and shrugging his shoulders, signaling his confusion to Snyder. Neither understood what happened but soon discovered that the first Afghan in the patrol decided to take a shortcut across a footbridge. “Remember what I said, the path of least resistance is almost always booby-trapped, and there was a 40-pound IED buried in that improvised footbridge. That Afghan got kicked forward 15 feet, and the Afghan behind him lost both legs. We needed to get them out as quickly as possible, as the 12 Taliban fighters now knew exactly where we were, and we were sitting ducks for a counterattack,” Snyder declared.

It took Snyder and two SEALs 10 minutes to pick up the first casualty and bring him to where a medevac helicopter could land. Snyder quickly ran to the back of the patrol to get a stretcher to carry the second casualty. He grabbed the stretcher, ran to the front of the patrol, jumped over the ravine and … silence. Snyder had stepped on a secondary IED a meter away from the first.

“I woke up and could barely see out of my left eye. I could see my hands, and behind my hands, I could see my boots. What I didn’t see was any blood or any damage. Nothing appeared to be wrong, which didn’t make any sense to me. I knew I had just been blown up. How could I be OK? I must be dead. … All of a sudden, my right ear started to ring very badly, and behind the ringing, I heard Adam calling to me. I wasn’t dead.”

Adam and a medic picked Snyder up and helped him walk to the helicopter, which flew him to a hospital in Kandahar, where he spent 12 hours in surgery. Once he was medically stable, he was rushed to an Air Force base in Germany, where he spent another nine hours in surgery, then on to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. On the fifth day at Walter Reed, the surgeons talked to him about a final surgery and told him, “If this surgery is a success, you’ll get back some of your vision,” which didn’t make sense to Snyder because he hadn’t realized he was blind. “Up to that moment, I didn’t understand that I wasn’t seeing with my eyes. I had been seeing with my mind. Spoiler alert—that last surgery was not a success. I have no light perception on either side,” he revealed.

Snyder shared with his audience that, at that moment, he had two choices. “I could dwell on all the things I’d never be able to do as a blind person, or I could realize how lucky I was to still be alive. I was given a second chance in a way that many others were not. When I came back to the U.S., I wasn’t in a coffin. I came back on a gurney with two arms and two legs that worked and an endless set of opportunities. I made a commitment in that hospital room that blindness wasn’t going to be anything that confined me or redefined me. I was going to make the most of my life.”

Snyder soon received a call from the military outreach coordinator for the United States Association of Blind Athletes, who told him that he gets wounded veterans into sports as a function of their rehab. He went on to say that it was a Paralympic year, and he could get Snyder entered into a swim meet in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to qualify for the Paralympic Games.

Snyder qualified at the meet and began training with Brian Loeffler, head coach of the swimming program at Loyola University in Maryland. Within a matter of months, Snyder improved his swimming time and became a member of Team U.S.A. for the Paralympic Games in London, where he competed in seven events, including the 400-meter freestyle on the first anniversary of the IED blast. As Snyder finished that race, he heard the cheers of the crowd, but being blind, he couldn’t see the results on the jumbotron, so he waited patiently in the water. “Finally, all the competitors finished, and a whistle was blown. At that point, my coach could legally talk to me. He said two words I’ll never forget: ‘You won!’”

Scott Thacker, VMI’s head swimming coach, shared that Snyder met with both the men’s and women’s swim teams at the Aquatic Center earlier in the day. “It was an awesome experience for our team, and his talk was fantastic. Brad’s energy is contagious, his love for country is profound, and his journey as a Paralympic athlete is inspiring,” he said.

Cadet Kate Taylor ’24, VMI women’s swimming and diving team member, said, “Lieutenant Snyder’s words painted a picture in my head. He has found a life of abundance in his new normal, along with limitless opportunities. I felt called to action by the way he fervently equips himself with a sense of gratitude, vowing to treat each day like a gift. He urged us to recognize the duty we have in selfless service to one another, and how we must harness the opportunities we have, out of respect for those who never can.”

At USNA, Snyder currently serves as a fellow for the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. He is a leadership instructor for future naval officers and is pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy. He also serves as an athlete representative on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s board of directors and is the advisory board chair for the Navy Special Operations Foundation. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Rooney.

Snyder’s book, “Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory,” can be purchased on Amazon.