One year after bomb blinded Afghan vet, Paralympic gold
Navy Lt. Brad Snyder was blinded a year ago by an IED blast in Afghanistan. On Friday he won a gold medal for the 400-meter freestyle in the London Paralympics, a performance he hopes will inspire other wounded vets.
Crossing a culvert, an Afghan soldier stepped on a pressure plate. On the heels of the explosion, Lieutenant Snyder ran to help him, only to trip another bomb himself.
After regaining consciousness, he recalls noticing with surprise that both his arms and legs were intact. He got to his feet and walked to the evacuation helicopter.
It was then that he lost his sight.
Friday, on the one-year anniversary of the bomb explosion, Mr. Snyder was winning a swimming gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the London Paralympics. It is a performance that he hopes will inspire his fellow combat veterans.
That is precisely what the Paralympics were designed to do from their inception as an event to aid wounded troops returning from war.
That was the intent of Ludwig Guttmann when he founded an archery competition in 1948 for 16 patients at a British hospital for combat veterans wounded in World War II.
A Jewish physician who fled Nazi Germany, Dr. Guttman settled in Britain and, as the war’s wounded flooded back to the country, Guttman soon earned a reputation for tough-love treatment of former troops in the course of trying to make their injured bodies stronger.
“Patients thought he was dreadful, nurses thought his ideas were dreadful, and other doctors thought he was mad,” his daughter Eva Loeffler told the British newspaper the Independent last month.
He encouraged patients to take part in sports like wheelchair polo, basketball, archery, and ping-pong in the course of their rehabilitation. “He retained that very Germanic strain of authoritarianism – it was difficult to disagree or argue with him,” Ms. Loeffler noted. “He was very driven.”
By 1960, Guttman’s initiative became the Paralympic Games.
Snyder and the other former military service members at this year’s Paralympics are equally driven. There are 20 wounded servicemen on the US Paralympic team, including six veterans of America’s decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After doctors told Snyder the blindness was permanent – his retinas were injured beyond repair in the IED explosion – Snyder began swimming again.
In the course of winning a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver in the 50-meter freestyle at the London Paralympics, Snyder recorded personal bests. And he is now the world record holder in his best event, the 400-meter freestyle, among blind athletes.
“This is what every kid dreams of when they are eight,” he told the Associated Press. “Through blindness I’ve been able to experience a level of competition I never would have otherwise. So in a way I am thankful for that.”
The medals are a bonus. The point of his hard work, he says, is to be an inspiration to his fellow combat veterans. “I hope that my generation – the warriors coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq who are lying in bed missing a limb or whatever and they don’t know what’s next,” he told the AP, “can see my story and say, ‘Hey, that’s for me. If he can do it, I can, too.’ ”