Friday September 9th, 2016

The first thing you notice about Brad Snyder are his eyes, and that’s because they don’t see. The porcelain prostheses gleam when you stand in front of him, just like they gleam when he removes his goggles on the pool deck or when he’s standing among athletes in a number of his advertisements. They jitter from side to side as if Snyder is absorbing his surroundings, but they’re just decoration.

Snyder’s rise from U.S. Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician (EOD) to one of the USA’s most prominent Paralympians has taken place in darkness. His first pair of eyes was used to find bombs hidden in air conditioning ducts, diagnosing their contents—peroxide based, a dirty bomb—and finding the right tools to deconstruct them. They were used to survey the IED-riddled areas of Kandahar and Baghdad, identify the radiological sources of bombs and find the sources to defuse them. Oddities, irregularities and color schemes all needed to be identified with his eyes. You’ve seen The Hurt Locker, right? Take away the main character’s recklessness and bravado, and that was the job.

Then one of the IEDs exploded in front of him. No limbs were lost, no fingers or toes detached, but the eyes were rendered useless. “My knowledge [of explosives] is good for one Jeopardy category,” Snyder jokes. “But I wouldn’t fare too well because I don’t know anything about opera.”

Five years since the accident, Snyder tells the story often. It comes easily after all the newspaper and magazine interviews, the graduation speeches and the corporate meetings. Snyder’s book Fire In My Eyes will be published this month, a movie script has been commissioned, and the speaking engagements and sponsorships are plentiful. The Paralympics thrive on inspirational tales, and Snyder’s three London medals (two gold, one silver) one year after losing his sight was a tale the games wanted to spread.

“I got blown up, I lost my sight, and I started to swim again,” Snyder says. “Maybe that’s a good story. But there’s a whole lot more that matters.”

Meet Team USA: Brad Snyder, Jessica Long, other Paralympians

Gold medals have a way of giving athletes exposure and veterans usually get standing ovations from admiring audiences. With NBC preparing to broadcast over 60 hours of Paralympics this year (as opposed to a little over six during the 2012 London games), Snyder’s story will likely be one of NBC’s human interest featurettes. He might be the most profiled and celebrated Paralympian in the nation. Another gold medal—five years after losing his sight no less—and Snyder’s platform (plus how he plans to use it) gains prominence. Snyder’s journey begins Friday with the 100-meter backstroke, and he’ll compete in four other events (400 free, 50 free, 100 fly, 100 free) in this year’s games.

The goal isn’t to compel the public to offer extra thanks for military service. Heightening public awareness of current military activity and actively assisting those who have returned to everyday life, Snyder argues, is. The thanks are appreciated, but it won’t help the countless veterans struggling to reintegrate into contemporary society. To Snyder, the average American should be cognizant of what the military member faces when he or she returns from duty, and the government and private sector need to improve the care that those veterans are currently receiving.

Central to Snyder’s message is identity. He’s not simply a former veteran or a Paralympian—he’s an athlete. After two gold medals in 2012 and the potential for more in 2016, Snyder is intent on spreading this message.

The question is whether the U.S. will notice a Paralympic athlete.

Simon Bruty

After receiving his discharge from active duty in 2012, Snyder’s initial goal was to pursue an MBA or get a tech job so he could feel competitive again, not return to the pool, where he once thrived as the former captain of the Naval Academy swim team.

“I needed something to show people that I was going to be fine,” Snyder says. “Life isn’t quite the way that it was, but that was not going to stop me or slow me down.”

Snyder teamed up with The COMMIT Foundation, a Baltimore-based organization designed to reintegrate high-performing veterans into the workforce. Anne Meree Craig, the co-founder of the COMMIT Foundation, was introduced to Snyder through Kevin McDonnell, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command while Snyder was rehabbing in Augusta, Ga., at the VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Center or, as Snyder called it, “Hogwarts for the Blind.”

“When our chairman met Brad, he told me that he thought that this guy really has his s*** together,” Craig says. "And when we met him we were all really impressed."

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COMMIT arranged for Snyder to work with a Baltimore-based software security firm called Red Owl, a tech startup intended to help companies and government agencies track employees and guard against malicious and unintentional risk. COMMIT helped Snyder move to Baltimore, but weeks before the move was set, Snyder told Craig that he wanted to return to the pool.

He had been approached about becoming a Paralympian during his rehabilitation, but resisted the idea because of his focus on proving himself in the working world. But ultimately, he returned to the pool as a way of demonstrating to friends and family that he’d be fine. The more he swam, the more he enjoyed it. Craig found Brian Loeffler, the head swimming coach at Loyola Maryland who had already coached blind swimmer Phillip Schultz.

“Fate brought us together,” Loeffler says. “I couldn’t find Brad after I saw him swim the first time at a meet, and then Anne Meree called me about three weeks later.”

Snyder began pairing his work at Red Owl with his training, arriving at the pool at 5:30 a.m. before heading off to work all while learning how to navigate himself in the world.

“It was clear he had a great stroke the first time I saw him in the pool,” Loeffler says. “He was already in tremendous shape because of his military background. We just needed to get him to hone his stroke.”

Swimming blind is, predictably, perilous without plenty of instruction and practice. Loeffler and another “tapper” stand at each end of the pool and tap Snyder’s back with a long stick when he’s approaching the wall so he can prepare for a flip turn. He swims with a protective sleeve in case his hand or arm jams into the wall, and he often bumps into the lane line during a 50-meter stretch. 

The year was spent juggling a new job while training in the pool for qualifying meets. Snyder won gold medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle and a silver in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Paralympic Games; the second gold coming exactly one year after he was blinded in Kandahar. He had announced himself as arguably the preeminent Paralympic freestyler in the world. Training to defend his titles in 2016 was one goal, marketing himself for the cause of U.S. veterans was the next step.

A volunteer taps Brad Snyder on the back to alert him that he is approaching a wall.
Chuck Burton/AP

Despite the visibility of military tributes across American sports, Snyder believes the public awareness of U.S. military commitments and the number of service members on the ground is low; he corrected me for an inaccurate comment about current U.S. military presence in the Middle East during our first meeting, and he laments several of the questions he receives on speaking tours.

“It’s very rare in the community for anybody to relate to us,” Snyder says. “I was a Naval EOD, and a lot of people don’t know why the Navy was even in Afghanistan. There’s no notion of joint warfare. I was asked what an IED was and nobody could answer. It’s a rapid transition for veterans and suddenly we wonder what it was all for.”

Perhaps the public can be forgiven for struggling to understand the scope and complexity of current military commitments, but Snyder argues that knowledge of the everyday struggles of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is even lower. Worse, he believes the federal government hasn’t properly invested in their transition after their return. The care—the surgeries, his time at Walter Reed Medical Center and his rehabilitation in Augusta—was outstanding. Getting discharged was a more significant problem.

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“The problem is layers of bureaucracy and how difficult it is for so many veterans to access those benefits,” Snyder says. “It took me 13 months to medically retire despite my condition being static and easy to identify. I can’t move forward in my life until I officially leave the service, and I’m the easiest case. Think about a junior marine who lost his legs and has a wife and three kids; the idleness is what’s killing them.”

Snyder’s argument is conceptually simple, but hardly relatable for those who haven’t served or lack a family member who didn’t serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once a veteran returns, don’t just add their name to a long list of veterans who need benefits—learn who they are beyond their military identity and try to integrate them. 

The problem was highlighted in the 2014 Veterans Health Affairs scandal, which saw several patients not receive treatment within 14 days of appointments, reportedly left several dying waiting for care, and resulted in the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseke. Instead of a rehabilitation program, the VA looked more like a cattle call.

A 2013 study commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that between 1999 and 2012, roughly 18–22 soldiers were committing suicide per day on average and there was a spike in suicide rates among soldiers ages 18–24. A recent survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 31% of veterans had considered taking their own lives.

The overwhelming number of returning soldiers created a struggle to access proper medical care and benefits, driving up the depression and suicide rates among veterans. Trust in the VA eroded, and soldiers, several of whom served multiple redeployments, were left unprotected after returning home from service.

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Snyder envisions a reduced and increasingly privatized model where veterans have expanded access to their health plans that aren’t beholden to the VA. President Obama indicated his opposition to privatizing the VA in a June interview, but did sign the Veterans Access to Care Act, which states that the department contract with private providers when a clinic is not within 40 miles of the veteran seeking care or the wait time for care is more than 30 days. 

“Society is moving toward a way where everything is data and metric oriented,” Snyder says. “The VA took a step in the right direction with wait time issue, giving vets a card that if you receive a wait time in excess of X amount of days then you can go to whatever hospital you want, you’ll be covered on whatever you need. If you look at the numbers on that, the care they received in private sector institutions, per-patient costs and in-patient treatment was better and more affordable. Little successes in small ways will change the mentality of what the VA will look like.”

Snyder doesn’t foresee himself as a solution for the dire problem that grips the veteran community, but as his celebrity expands, so does the opportunity for his message.

“Vets can feel stuck trying to become the person you used to be introducing themselves as former marine, army sergeant,” Snyder says. “I want the veteran to be proud of their service, but be able to move forward. The more that we can adopt that mindset, the more we can move forward in an impactful way. That way we can keep people from falling through the cracks.”

Simon Bruty

As Snyder prepares for his defense of his gold medals, viewers watching the Paralympics will see him in commercials for Citi and can eventually pick up his book. He’s favored to win the 400 free and stands a good chance at repeating his feats from four years ago. He’s expertly marketed himself, but now he must win to keep the profile high despite the corporate sponsorships. Even with NBC’s expanded coverage, the Paralympics’ exposure is lacking.

“We talked about this before London in 2012 and on the anniversary of his accident,” Loeffler says. “There have been plenty of military personnel who have gotten involved, they’ve had a nice story but haven’t had a crescendo ending. It can have an exclamation point if you end up winning because, well, Americans like winners.”

Snyder’s performance in July’s Paralympic trials indicate he’ll be in the thick of the gold medal chase again. If people are watching, then maybe the public who claps for the veteran and the veteran struggling with readjustment will hear the message. An Olympian could probably get that message across. But a Paralympian? Snyder won’t be able to see the results through his porcelain eyes, but he’s confident he’ll be on the perch to make his case.

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