Brad Snyder: Living for Another "Best Day"
Nov. 10, 2011
By Justin Kischefsky
Assistant Sports Information Director
U.S. Naval Academy
Just one split second. The time it takes to do something as simple as snap your fingers, light a match or click a ballpoint pen. But a single split second also can dramatically change a life. Such was the case for Lt. Brad Snyder when, on September 7, an Improvised Explosive Device was triggered near him. Though the injuries he sustained in the accident changed everything for the 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy who served as the captain of the swimming team, they also changed nothing for him. He refuses to allow what happened to him in that sliver of time in a farmland in Afghanistan change who he is, his outlook on life or what his hopes and dreams for the future are.
To understand how a life-altering event hasn't become life shattering for him, one needs to know Brad.
Snyder described himself to be a "trouble maker" as a child, but his mom, Valerie, says the trouble he got into was because he was so outgoing.
"When I would get called in by the teachers, they told me it was because Brad would finish his own work and then go around to help the other kids with their work. He was chatty. One day he came home from school and said that the teacher really likes him because she had him move his desk right next to hers."
Looking for an outlet for his boundless energy, his father, Michael, suggested he give the swimming team a try when he was 11 years old. With his family living on the Gulf of Mexico in St. Petersburg, Fla., and spending a great deal of time at the beach, the sport seemed to be a natural fit for him.
"I just fell in love with swimming right off the bat," recalled Snyder. "I became competitive at it pretty quickly and really enjoyed it."
Snyder attended Northeast High School and helped the school's swimming team win conference and district titles and place second in the state in both 2000 and 2001. He was named as both the captain of the team and the team MVP in 2001.
With his success in the pool, Snyder started considering the possibility of being able to swim on the collegiate level. On a whim, he and an uncle drove from a meet in North Carolina he was competing in to Annapolis to walk around the Naval Academy. After that first visit to The Yard, he was hooked.
"It is hard to not become enamored with the Naval Academy after watching all of the history and tradition played out in front of you during the recruiting video for it and seeing the place in person," said Snyder. "It is a huge honor to attend Navy. Plus, it took care of any financial burden for myself and it would allow me to swim on the Division I level."
Not only did Snyder have an interest in attending Navy, the Navy coaching staff was interested in Snyder, too.
"We sent Brad a letter in the spring of 2001," said McGee Moody, an assistant coach at Navy at the time and now the head coach at South Carolina. "We knew Brad could help the swimming team, but there is more to recruiting someone to swim at Navy than just that. We had to make sure he was the right fit for the Naval Academy.
"From the very first phone call, his personality and the type of person he is ended any other questions we may have had about him. He just hit everything right out of the park."
"I was Brad's host on his official visit," said Jake Keefe, a fellow swimmer and a member of the Class of 2005. "I remember that he was real energetic, had a positive attitude and was excited about coming to Navy. And I was excited that he wanted to come here."
"I wasn't real surprised he wanted to attend Navy," said his mom. "He really liked the order and rules his father had at home, so it seemed to be a good fit for him."
He was accepted in the fall of 2001 and soon arrived in Annapolis in June of 2002 to begin Plebe Summer. Like most, if not all Plebes, Induction Day was somewhat overwhelming for Snyder.
"There is a certain shock to it all," said Snyder. "There was really a feeling of being alone on that first day. It is the first time you are venturing away from your family, and having your head shaved and wearing the Plebe `white works' uniform only adds to everything hitting you on that first day.
"But at the same time, there is also a feeling of starting to be part of something bigger than yourself."
Those feelings continued during his first year at Navy and only grew as he became part of the swimming team. He views being part of the program and the lessons he learned from it as being a major influence on his life.
"Being part of the team was a huge rally point for us," said Snyder. "The most important part of being on a team is learning teamwork. You have to understand how each cog makes a wheel spin around. You learn what you are good at and what you are bad at and what you have to improve upon to help those around you and the team have success. You need to strive for one cohesive goal as a team, not as an individual. And those lessons can be applied everywhere and in every setting in life."
"Brad had a great attitude and showed real leadership skills from his first day," said Keefe. "He was very charismatic and challenged both himself and those around him, including myself. He works so hard and always gives 100 percent at everything he does."
"Brad and I hit it off right away," said classmate Ian Getzler. "We were both distance swimmers, so we were in the same lane together from our first day of practice. You could tell Brad was a driven individual who wanted to push himself and those around him to be the best he and they could be. He also was always upbeat about everything."
"Brad worked hard at everything he did," said Lee Lawrence, who was the Navy head coach during Brad's freshman year. "It was what made him successful."
One of the highlights of Snyder's early days as a member of the swimming team was the Army-Navy meet that took place in December of 2002 in West Point, N.Y. A lot of factors -- his first taper on the collegiate level, swimming in the rivalry itself for the first time, doing so on the road, being slated to swim in the first individual event of the night (the 1000 freestyle) -- created a feeling of uncertainty for Snyder. But those feelings of angst quickly went away as soon as he entered the water at the start of his race.
"I felt amazing as soon as I jumped in the pool," said Snyder. "When I touched the wall and finished, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw my time (9:35.60). I was in disbelief at how fast I had gone. Then I looked around and realized I was the only one who had finished swimming. I didn't believe that was possible either."
Though that race would be his lone victory in his four years on the team, he was a consistent scorer in meets for Navy throughout his career and garnered all-league honors from the Patriot League in 2004. And while he remained one of the hardest workers on the team, he also had the ability to keep things loose on the pool deck.
"He was always smiling and seemed to have a lot of fun in the pool," said Moody. "That's not a trait every swimmer has, especially a distance swimmer."
"Brad stood out as a real positive person," said Navy men's swimming head coach Bill Roberts, who took over the program from the retired Lawrence in 2003. "His natural work ethic and his positive demeanor were what my initial impressions of him were.
"He was always competitive in every practice and in every meet. He wanted the top spot in his lane in every practice. But he had to work for every point he scored. Nothing came easy for him."
"I didn't join the swimming team until halfway through my sophomore year," said Joe Smutz, also a member of the Class of 2006. "At the time I didn't really know anyone on the team, but Brad did the most of anyone to go out of his way to make me feel welcome. He made sure I was included in everything the team was doing."
Later in his career, Snyder would garner the ultimate laurel from his teammates when he was tabbed to be the captain of the squad his senior year. He considers it to be one of the highlights of his life.
"It is a bit overwhelming to be named captain," said Snyder. "It is not something you strive for; you are just doing your part to help the team. The guys really gave me a gift.
"I viewed the captains during my first three years -- Jimmy Battista, Marshall Boyd and Jake Keefe -- as being superhuman. It was if they put on a cape and turned into someone else. They were always able to say just the right words to inspire the team before a meet. I had to wonder if I was capable of being in that position myself. I didn't want to be the guy who screwed things up. I wanted to continue to emulate what I had learned from them."
Those around him view the results of the voting as a testament to Snyder's ability to lead the team.
"It was a great statement for him to be elected captain of his class, which was pretty talented in the pool and filled with guys who were great leaders," said Roberts. "But he had established a great deal of credibility with his classmates as a potential captain, and the younger guys saw his commitment to the program. He really developed into a leader."
"Brad was the one who everyone trusted," said Smutz. "He really was friends with everybody. At the same time, he was strong enough to make sure we did all we had to do to get our work done and be the best we could possibly be both as individuals and as a team."
"He was elected captain because he looked at the team as a family," said Getzler. "He was the oldest of his siblings and he had a kind of big brother outlook for the team. He kept everyone together, was a good leader and wanted the guys to not only do their job but also enjoy what they were doing."
"Brad really did think of a team as a family," said his mom. "A swim team is such a close group that spends the whole year together, it really is like a family. Other kids would talk about the vacations they went on and Brad would just say he didn't go anywhere because he was with his swimming family."
In addition to leading the team as a senior, he also had to come to a decision that year as to what service assignment he would request. Though he had been considering being part of the surface warfare community, he instead decided to become an explosive ordnance disposal officer. Part of the reasoning behind his selection was the people in the EOD community he had been able to meet.
"Being in aquatics, we were able to get to know many of the screeners for the special warfare communities during my first three years," said Snyder. "The EOD officers seemed to be doing things above and beyond what others were doing. There are opportunities to do many things in EOD. Being able to jump out of planes, swim and dive, along with the big academic orientation available and the problem solving capabilities that were required really appealed to me. They all said that Navy EOD was the best kept secret in the military."
The explosive ordnance disposal community is a relatively small one, but incredibly vital. There are fewer than 2,000 active members of the Navy EOD community, which includes women, with one quarter of the branch being officers. One of the most dangerous elements to the community can easily be implied from its name ... being able to dismantle explosives. Nowadays, one of the biggest threats to members of our ground forces is the Improvised Explosive Device, more commonly referred to as an IED. But that is far from the lone area of responsibility and concern for EOD members.
Each branch of the military has an EOD community and, in addition to being trained to detonate explosives, it also has a varied skill set that includes, among other requirements, rendering safe conventional, nuclear, biological and chemical munitions. Navy EOD technicians also go through EOD Diver training and Airborne School (Snyder took a weekend away from Airborne School, one of the more physically demanding segments of the training, to compete in an Ironman triathlon), which is unique when compared to those EOD members of the other military branches. Navy EOD technicians clear explosives, assist with the Secret Service on protection details and support special operations from not just within the Navy but also the other military services. One mission may have them diving for underwater ordnance in Japan, another may have them teaching people in Africa to disarm bombs and another could have them aboard an aircraft carrier making sure there is no trouble with the ordnance being stored on the ship.
"EOD is a force multiplier," said Keefe, also an EOD technician. "An entire infantry company may be stopped in its progress by something in the road. It only takes one or two of us to get in there and allow everyone to move forward.
"Just getting to the dangerous stuff is where our job begins. EODs main mission is the protection of personnel and property, but many times EOD technicians have to place themselves in harm's way in order to do that. We need to be able to operate with SEALs and other units while also training to our specialty skills in explosives."
"Being in EOD is a lot like being a member of a sports team," said Getzler, himself a member of the EOD community. "EOD is a very small, close-knit group. Just as in swimming, we all want to push each other to be the best we can be as a team. The success of a mission comes down to that. You also have to break down the barriers between people and ranks and have everyone work together for one collective goal. As soon as you deploy, it is no longer about rank. From cleaning the truck out after a mission to creating PowerPoint presentations, you as an officer could be doing any job; nothing is beneath you."
After graduating from the Naval Academy in May of 2006, Snyder spent the summer assigned to the USNA's Physical Education Department until reporting to dive school that fall. He began the EOD program two months later.
After Snyder and his team passed their final exams, his first duty station was in Charleston, S.C. He would soon spend six months deployed to Iraq. Upon returning to the United States, he moved with his unit to Virginia Beach, Va., where he stayed until his most recent deployment sent him to Afghanistan on April 11 of this year. Much of his team's final training for this deployment was filmed by the Discovery Channel for airing on the program, "Surviving the Cut."
In addition to the general stress and concern everyone has to find ways to cope with while deployed, Snyder had another personal issue to work through. His father passed away while Brad was overseas. Despite his grief, Snyder remained on deployment with his team.
"It was difficult to be away," said Snyder. "It took a lot of resolve, but I knew in my heart what was best and that was helping my team. If I could have had another conversation with my dad, I know he would have told me to stay on my mission. And I just wanted to do everything I could to make him proud."
One of the focal points of his mission on this tour was to enable, educate and advise the assault team he was assigned with to move around safely and avoid IEDs. If an IED was to be discovered, Snyder would be the one to dismantle it.
September 7, 2011, dawned as a regular day for Snyder. He knew the team he was working with was in an area with a high number of IEDs, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The team was moving village to village, but it was travelling via the local farmland as opposed to the roads in an attempt to increase their safety.
Suddenly, the front of his team's patrol set off an IED that injured two Afghan partner forces. As Snyder was providing aid to the duo, he heard a click, turned his head and saw a flash. It was a previously unseen IED exploding.
Most of the blast was centered on his face and inflicted severe burns, but he was able to walk to a medic helicopter that was already en route to the scene to take care of the first two service members that were originally wounded. Snyder was operated on at Camp Kandahar in Afghanistan before being transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. Roughly 60 hours after the accident, he was in a bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside of Washington, D.C.
In time, his burns and shattered eardrum would heal, but the accident left him with a permanent injury; Snyder would be blind for the rest of his life.
From his first day at Bethesda, Snyder found himself surrounded by family and friends who came to visit him. Their support, and the care he received from people he didn't even know beforehand, sped along his recovery process at a rapid rate.
"There seemed to always be people in my room showing genuine concern for myself and my family," said Snyder. "I wanted to heal as fast as possible for them. I was not going to let my injuries get me down. Compared to other patients who were on my floor, I had nothing to whine about.
"The Wounded Warriors Foundation, Safe Harbor and everyone at Bethesda treated me second to none. I can't wait to give back to them. I'm giving them all of the money I had received in donations. It is a way for me to validate the fantastic care I received from them."
"The care Brad and everyone in that ward received was the best," said his mom. "The nurses in Bethesda treated him and everyone else with so much respect. They were real advocates for the patients. And the attitudes of the guys were phenomenal. Here they were without limbs or with other severe injuries, and all they wanted to do was get back to doing what they did.
"It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. If people could spend just one day in that ward, their lives would be changed."
Snyder's positive attitude was not lost on those who visited him, and all found it inspiring.
"Brad was positive from the start," said Keefe. "He just kept saying things like, `I'm going to do this, do that; I'm not letting this get me down.' He was cracking jokes from the first time I saw him in the hospital. He was so excited about what life could bring him."
"I look at the pictures of him since he returned to the States," said Moody, "and within days he was playing a guitar and going out on walks. The dramatic life change he has undergone is just another challenge for him. This is just something else in life he has to face, and he will conquer it. It is humbling to see his attitude."
"Seeing the amount of people who visited him in the hospital just shows the impact Brad has had on people's lives," said Roberts. "He used to babysit my sons when he was a Mid, so we took the kids to visit Brad when he was in Bethesda. When we arrived I knocked on the door to his room and said hello. Even with a significant number of people already in the room, he picked up on my voice right away and got up to welcome our family and make all of us feel at ease. But that wasn't just with us; he was the lead greeter with anyone who came in.
"If you know Brad, he cares about you. That is one of his defining characteristics and without a doubt that is what will not hold him back from doing anything he wants to in the future."
"You could tell Brad was `with it' from the start," said Getzler, who took leave and flew from his base in Guam to be by Brad's side in the hospital. "I was with him for about nine or 10 days and he was nothing but positive the whole time. He was taking care of those around him. He is the strongest person I know. His main thoughts were about his team still deployed and his concern for their well being."
Three weeks after the accident, Snyder was well enough to be transferred to the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Tampa, Fla. He noted it was just in time for him to follow his beloved Tampa Bay Rays on their run to the playoffs. Two weeks later he took his sister, Elyse, to the Tampa Navy Ball. Then, on October 22, he returned to the swimming pool for the first time since the accident. He told everyone he was expecting to swim just a lap or two. He finally emerged from the pool after having completed several hundred meters. One week later he ran a 5K race in St. Petersburg in just 30 minutes.
Snyder currently spends weekdays at the VA and weekends at home with his family. Soon he will receive what he calls the "Lamborghini" of guide dogs. It is expected that he will be far enough along in his recovery that he can move home full time in early 2012. Once he does, Snyder plans on picking up his life right where it was at before the accident.
"It is hard to say at this time what I am going to be doing in the future," said Snyder. "I still want to make a tangible impact on people. I just have to find that right civic organization or corporate setting to do so."
Those who know Brad are sure that the future is nothing but bright for him.
"Brad's perseverance will carry him through," said Keefe. "He had to work hard for everything he has done, from being a distance swimmer, to majoring in naval architecture to being an EOD officer. He WILL do great things."
"I don't see anything holding Brad back," said Getzler. "He is already planning on an open water swim. And he wants to help the EOD community to keep everyone safe."
A Navy swimming tradition under Roberts has been for the program's graduating seniors to write a letter to the coaches about their time at Navy and being part of the team. Snyder's letter was a chronological listing of some of the significant events of his four years on The Yard. Each event that he detailed included the phrase, "That was the BEST day of my life." It is a phrase that has guided him through his life, through serving our country and through his recovery. And it will continue to guide him in the future.
"I am not going to let blindness build a brick wall around me," said Snyder. "I can still do almost everything I could before the accident. I can't wait to go on a tandem bike ride for the first time. I plan on getting a graduate degree. There are so many opportunities available to me. Just walking outside for the first time with my cane, that was one of my best days. When I can move into a house by myself, that will be one of my best days. When I get married and have kids, those will be my best days.
"I'd give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do. There are no regrets for any decision I have made."