Former Navy Lieutenant and Olympic gold-medalist Bradley Snyder took time to sit down with WATM to discuss his book, his experiences in the Navy and in life. He wrote Fire In My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory in 2015 which is going through the development process into a feature-length screenplay. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2006 where he was captain of the swim team before joining Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal as an officer where he deployed to the Middle East numerous times.
An IED attack in September 2011 in Afghanistan left Bradley blind. He has since overcome his challenges to be a force on the U.S. Paralympic team. Bradley won two gold medals and one silver at the London Olympics in 2012 and then three gold medals and one silver at Rio in 2016. He has also taught at the Naval Academy in the Leadership and Ethics department. Among fully blind swimmers he is the record holder for the 100-meter freestyle event. This is his story.
- What can you share about your family and your life growing up?
His parents and family moved about every three years while he was growing up. Snyder stated,
“We eventually settled in Florida in my teens. We lived in Bradenton, Florida, for a number of years and that is where I started swimming and then we eventually moved to St. Petersburg (FL). Living in Florida is central to my family’s culture. We are water people…all of us ended up competitively swimming at some point. I am the oldest of four kids and two young brothers and a younger sister — it was a full family affair heading to the pool. Our lives largely revolved around swimming. It was my father’s idea when I was about 11 to get me out of the house and get me engaged in something; it was his idea to go to the swimming pool and it took over our lives.”
His mother worked as a neonatal nurse for over three decades and was the breadwinner in the home since his father had a rare genetic condition that precluded him from working. His father’s health suffered, and he passed away at a young age in 2011 when Snyder was in Afghanistan. His mother retired just a few years ago.
2. What made you want to join the US Navy and what was your experience like?
Many factors led to Snyder’s interest in the service. He played a lot of “Army” as a kid and watched Top Gun while growing up. The family’s first video game was a flight simulator that starred the AV-8B Harrier. Three out of four of his grandparents were in the military as well. His maternal grandfather was a World War II veteran who had a significant impact on him. His maternal grandparents met in a Navy hospital as his grandmother served as his grandfather’s nurse while his grandfather recovered from wounds sustained in a training accident. Snyder’s hero as a little boy was his Grandpa Varga. As he said, “I knew from an early age wanted to be like him. I wanted to follow his example. He was an engineer and had served in the Navy. That laid a nice blueprint for who I wanted to be.”
Around the middle of high school, Snyder had good grades, test scores and had distinguished himself in swimming. He knew that his family could not afford to pay for his schooling, so he had three options; the US Naval Academy, the University of Florida on scholarship, or enlist in the Navy to eventually apply to the Academy. Snyder was able to get into the Academy early and it is the only place he ended up applying. He credits visiting the Academy during his sophomore year of high school and the school providing Snyder with a checklist of what a successful candidate looks like. He followed the checklist and completed everything he could on it to improve his candidacy. He did community service and continued his work in academics and sports, which proved to be a wise decision.
He recalled the from the Academy, “…sort of this feeling of dissidence where I was a very poor student, it was hard to keep up with a lot of school. It was the first time in my life where my priorities were challenged in a meaningful way. High school was not particularly difficult, and swimming was my primary focus. School was very difficult at the Academy. The bar was raised across the board and the culture at the school was to strive for a straight-A average and anything other than that is looked down upon.”
Bradley plateaued as a swimmer while at the Academy which made focusing on his grades even more important. The Academy is serious in nature. In 2002, in the wake of 9/11 they were getting ready to go to war as Midshipman. The weight of their service was heavier than in the 80s or 90s when America was not in a full-scale conflict. Snyder felt dissidence again as a junior at the Academy and wanted to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan over sitting in a class on thermodynamics. He remembered asking, “When is it time for me to live up to my end of the bargain and go somewhere and go do something real as opposed to take this stupid exam?” Looking back, he felt patience would have helped him.
He spent a lot of time and thought on where he wanted to serve. He did a lot of trial by error by going aboard ships, a submarine and even getting to fly a helicopter as a Midshipman. He eventually graduated toward the special operations part of the Navy. He liked the small nature of it, the small unit leadership. “There was often,” he shared, “we were doing special stuff. I wanted to go to BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL) because I wanted to know whether or not I could take it. I always gravitated towards the harder thing. I liked the challenges, I liked the idea of, ‘Could I swim 10k in water, could I run a marathon, or could I do this hard thing?’ BUD/S was this physical challenge that was out there. I wanted to see if I had what it took to get through BUD/S.”
Bradley discovered the EOD community through his search for a career. He decided on EOD as his first choice for his service. “I was more attracted to a career in EOED because I felt that EOD Officers needed to solve more interesting and more complex problems. I liked that they deploy with all sorts of task elements from the infantry to special units like SEALs, SF and Rangers. I also gained a certain satisfaction from the fact that while most people know what a SEAL is, almost no one knows what an EOD officer is. Lastly, I liked the idea that with an EOD career it was at least possible that I could do both mission sets…. I could be a qualified EOD technician that embeds with a SEAL team and effectively perform both mission sets, which is what I got to do in Afghanistan and something I was gratified to do and something I’m immensely proud of!”
3. What are you most proud of from your service in the Navy?
“I am most proud of that platoon and throughout the harrowing experience of that (Afghanistan 2011) deployment, and as well as taking my platoon to Iraq and back. Bringing everyone home alive was most important to me and that is what I am most proud of.”
“There is something magical about the way a group comes together under the stresses of combat….and having studied leadership and taught leadership at the Academy, it’s something a lot of people try to replicate and it’s really not possible to do unless the stress is as high as it is in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. The organizational dynamic I got to experience with my platoon in Afghanistan was really incredible.” He showed up in Afghanistan on day one not knowing any of his platoon. On his third or fourth operation with his unit, he felt so cohesively set with his group that they were almost all thinking on the same level. He described it as a “free-flowing organism.”
The platoon was in Afghanistan for 11 months. His was the only injury they sustained, which is remarkable considering the circumstances. A testament to the tight bonds and professionalism of the unit.
4. What values have you carried over from the Navy back into the civilian world?
Snyder has brought back service, honor and legacy over to his new life in the civilian world. He shared a phrase used in the Navy, “Ship, shipmate and then yourself.” Snyder is interested in serving something larger than himself. Snyder believes people’s actions are worth more when we do them for our communities than those same actions done out of selfish interests. He said,
“…honor means contributing to the overall legacy of something else….I want to represent the Naval Academy well. There are two halves of that, I want to reflect back luster on them…on the flip side I am deterred from doing bad things because I don’t want to bring discredit upon the Naval Academy, or the Navy or my own family name in that regard…that sort of behavioral construct is something I took away from the military and adhere to on a daily basis.”
5. What was one of the toughest lessons to learn coming from the service to the US Paralympics?
Snyder prides himself on his autonomy and ability to work independently. From an operational standpoint in EOD, he worked alone or with another EOD pair. Upon integrating with the Marines or SEALs he was one of a few. The platoons he worked with usually didn’t know him, so it was an unusual situation that requires quick adaptation. Snyder relied on his technical expertise and professionalism. He stated,
“It was really important for me to be as individually capable as possible in all environments. My ability to speak, my ability to present, my ability to operate on the battlefield….post-injury… it’s kind of flipped on its head. It’s almost impossible to do anything of those effectively, especially at the beginning, in the blindness environment. Trying to learn how to just do daily tasks, organize my clothing, brush my teeth, walk down the street. Just mundane very basic things are nearly impossible to do individually or autonomously when I was first blind. Even today there is a widespread of tasks that I can’t do on my own and I need help.”
He credits learning to accept help more through his rehab process. Snyder admits that he still struggles to ask for help and he understands that it is important to do so. He has learned to ask for help when he needed it and how to effectively ask for help. He initially took pity showed by his family and friends to him as a hit to his confidence as he was no longer the independent EOD officer. Snyder would get angry and isolate himself due to the blows to his ego. He has learned that he can do some things and he cannot do others, where he is ok with thinking this way now. Snyder describes it as a “maturation process”.
He struggled with insomnia when he was writing his book due to no longer being able to perceive light and dark, which have a significant effect on our body’s sleep cycle. So, when he was not sleeping, he would just write.
While at Walter Reed for his treatment and rehab he was visited by people he knew and those he didn’t, especially since the hospital is so close to the DC beltway. His mother was in the room when he was visited by so many different people as she learned a lot about Snyder’s deployment experience. The stories floored his mother, which Snyder then realized the knowledge gap between many civilians and the military. Many of the military memoirs of recent times are jargon-heavy and unapproachable to civilians with training in the military language, so he wanted to write a book that his mom could read and understand. Snyder was also told by many people after he would give speeches about his story that he should write a book. He was only able to tell part of his story in speeches where the book was, “as Paul Harvey would say…kind of the rest of the story.”
6. Do you find yourself to be a leader for disabled veterans?
Snyder does not consider him a leader in the disabled veteran community. He visited the wounded warrior area at Walter Reed to inspire the troops since a lot of activity was going on from their injuries. No one really cared where these warriors were focused on regaining their own sense of identity and independence. The veterans just need the tools, the leg, the arm, the wheelchair and then the veterans will go out and crush their new challenges. Snyder does take his lesson learned of knowing when to ask for help from the disabled veteran community. He stated of the modern era veterans and disabled veterans with, “…I have been continually impressed by their resolve, their resilience and what they have been able to do post-injury and post-transition.” He has become a de facto leader in the disability realm for being blind and digital accessibility. He goes by the mindset, “…if I fix this thing it is better for someone else who follows me.” He considers himself more of a pathfinder in the disability realm. He has dealt with people not wanting to interact with him because he is blind. He has focused his efforts on breaking that barrier down by changing their perception of being blind and disabled. He is out doing things that recreate the perception of being blind and disabled.
7. Can you share some of your experiences working on your own book, Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory and then it being turned into a feature film?
The book was certainly a personal process for Snyder to write as he said it was, “…very cathartic.” He revisited many times in his life, especially at the hospital and rehab, that were not pleasant and that he doesn’t really visit. He derived the meaning from each experience for the book and then translated that meaning for someone else. It was a quick process with the book and Tom Sileo. Sileo brought Snyder’s narrative into a smooth-flowing narrative that was digestible for readers from Snyder’s manuscript.
When marketing the book, one firm attempted to take Snyder’s association with the SEALs and make it much more than it was by placing SEAL paraphernalia on the book cover and in advertising. Snyder was not for that at all because he is EOD and not a SEAL. It was a major reputation risk and he decided against the publisher’s plan. He got more restrictive with what he felt comfortable with where the publisher still wanted more. The process of selling the book was ungratifying to him as he was unable to participate in a lot of the interviews for it as he was competing in the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil when the book was released.
8. What leadership lessons in life and from the Navy have helped you most in your career?
Snyder reflects on his time at the Academy and how the military valued hard work and that you care about those around you over having a perfect GPA. He teaches in his leadership class authentic compassion, which he also feels he took from his service. He credits his hard work and authentic compassion with his successes in EOD. He said, …you can’t fake either.” Snyder believes we as humans know instinctively when people care and when they don’t, especially in the military.
9. How do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
Snyder feels Hollywood has a distance to the military as a culture just like the civilian world does. Only 1% of the US population has served so that is part of the disconnect. He believes if producers or executives need military support or consulting, that they should hire a veteran with the experience. He believes in, “…two things, celebrate the wins and work towards those projects. Two, hire vets in all different aspects it not just actors either, screenwriter…director…or camera guy. There is probably a vet out that who can do it just as well as someone else.”
He believes in doing things “right” with the military since characters should not be over-sensationalized or faux heroes. Snyder said, “Not every one that puts on a uniform is a hero.” Snyder likes the grounded approach to the military and filmmaking. Snyder enjoyed the film Black Hawk Down for its realism and professionalism. He recognizes the effort put into how Rangers and Delta were cast. As an EOD officer, he felt that The Hurt Locker was “off” and “inauthentic” and it didn’t make sense to him. He said, “As an EOD officer I couldn’t see myself in that film. It was off. It felt like a square peg in a round hole….as a veteran, doing that job….I watched that movie in Iraq…where it was so far off…authenticity is really important.” He believes that if he didn’t know anything about the military then The Hurt Locker could work and that it still is an important film in cinema history. He recognizes the effort put into making The Hurt Locker and the great performances that just didn’t resonate with him as EOD. Authenticity is what connects people, especially veterans to a film.
10. What are you most proud of in life and your career?
He is most proud of his marriage with his wife and he shared, “…it represents a new chapter in my life…my career is now our career. My finances are now our finances….it is a welcome change.” Taking on new challenges is key to Snyder as well where he does not want to become stagnant in his life. Growth almost only occurs through taking on new challenges.