Blind Navy Diver Credits VA with Recovery Leading to Paralympic Gold

By Steve Lewis

Asked how his experience as a Navy diver aided his recovery from improvised explosive device (IED) injuries, including blindness, Lt. Bradley Snyder had a quick response: “This was not the first time I had to operate in an environment where I could not see.”

“Recovery” was perhaps too mild a word to describe what Snyder has accomplished since being wounded. A year after his injuries, he won two gold medals and one silver medal in swimming events at the 2012 Paralympics in London. Today, he is interning at a software company and serving as an “ambassador” for the Commit Foundation, which helps veterans transition to new careers. He also “stars” in a YouTube video, “What I Learned in the Navy,” where he shares his experiences and the lessons he has learned.

Snyder says he has no doubt that his naval training played a key role in his ability to proactively face his challenges. “In the grand scheme, the virtues and mental confidence you are imbued with lend to your being able to negotiate a stressful situation,” he shares. “My whole job as duty officer — handling stress, recognizing danger — teaches you how to be mentally tough.”

Snyder had demonstrated excellence early in his career, including graduating from the Naval Academy. (His family was service-minded, he says, and growing up in Colorado Springs, Colo., he was exposed to the Air Force Academy.) He had also been recruited as a Division I athlete.

In his last combat deployment in Afghanistan, his assignment was defusing bombs for a Navy SEAL team. He was injured when he stepped on an IED while running to help an injured comrade.

U.S. Navy Lt. Bradley Snyder, assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., poses for a photo before the Paralympic Games last year. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Sean M. Worrell

Credits VA Rehab

When he was wounded, says Snyder, there was little that could be done for him on the battlefield. He was transferred to a trauma center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a surgeon worked to repair his face. There were several surgeries, including one every day for six days at Walter Reed, to further debride his face. Unsuccessful attempts were made to save his sight, and he underwent occupational, physical and recreational therapy to help him physically recover, regain full range of motion in his right hand (which had been broken) and acclimate himself to blindness and how to adapt to a living style without sight.

He credits the Charlie Norwood VAMC in Augusta, GA, which had specific rehab programs for blind veterans, with teaching him life skills, computer skills, mobility skills, how acclimate to a cane, how to use an audible computer system and other essential activities.

The VA, says Snyder, was very supportive in collaborating with the Blind Athletic Association to expose him to Paralympic sports, and he worked with a local coach who had blind experience.

“That was very formative exposure to the support available, and Navy Safe Harbor flew me out to some camps to prepare me for the Warrior Games,” Snyder recalls. “I really had an opportunity to compete on the big stage.”

At the Paralympics, Snyder competed in a total of seven events — the 50-, 100-, and 400-meter freestyle, the 100-meter breast stroke, butterfly and backstroke, and the 200-meter individual medley. He took Gold in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events, and a Silver in the 50-meter freestyle.

Once his active duty ends this fall, Snyder says he plans to train full-time for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Navy Lt. Bradley Snyder trained for the Paralympics in 2012. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Stephen Murphy

Serving Others

Meanwhile, he is deriving great satisfaction from his “ambassadorship.”

“We’re lining people up with mentors and executives,” he explains. “Maybe they should get an MBA, or perhaps go into consulting; it’s based on their strengths, weaknesses and passions.”

The Commit Foundation, he notes, helped him get his own internship in Baltimore, mentored him, and helped him with his transition.

“After working as an intern, I found my interest was in nonprofits and helping my fellow veterans make a similar transition,” Snyder explains.

As for his career future, Snyder plans to re-evaluate that once he transitions to civilian life. “I’ll identify a career path, potentially involving both the Olympics and veterans,” he says.

One thing is clear: Whatever goal he sets, he is intent on success.

“I seem to feel there aren’t any limits on what you can accomplish,” Snyder explains. “I have the mentality that you do not know your limits until you try them; until you really go to the edge and attempt to climb that mountain, you’ll never know what your true limits are.”

His personal mission, he underscores, is “Expanding beyond my own limitations and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.”

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