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Fire in My Eyes
An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory
By Brad Snyder
By Tom Sileo
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- Hardcover $36.00 $46.00 CAD
- ebook $16.99 $21.99 CAD
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On the night Osama bin Laden was killed, US Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder was serving in Afghanistan as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer with SEAL Team Ten. When he learned of SEAL Team Six’s heroics across the Pakistani border, Brad was thankful. Still, he knew that his dangerous combat deployment would continue.
Less than five months later, Brad was engulfed by darkness after a massive blast caused by an enemy improvised explosive device. Suddenly Brad was blind, with vivid dreams serving as painful nightly reminders of his sacrifice.
Exactly one year after losing his sight, Brad heard thousands cheer as he stood on a podium in London. Incredibly, Brad had just won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Fire in My Eyes is the astonishing true story of a wounded veteran who refused to give up. Lieutenant Brad Snyder did not let blindness build a wall around him-through tenacity and courage, he tore it down.
The Monsters of Weeki Wachee Springs
From the edge of a small platform, suspended in the middle of a clear, dark lake, my five-year-old eyes gazed into the chilly water. My parents and grandparents had brought me to beautiful Weeki Wachee, near my grandparents’ house in my home state of Florida. As legend would have it, mermaids swim among the caves formed by the Weeki Wachee Springs.
As a five-year-old child, I had a strong belief in this myth. To further this vision, my father, Michael Snyder, pointed out a large, white conch shell at the bottom, and what appeared to be strands of mermaid hair—which was actually seaweed—entangling it. Fascinated, I told my dad that I wanted to investigate the shell. He nodded in encouragement, and watched me don a small mask as I entered the water.
Once immersed, I looked toward the shell, which was seemingly hundreds of feet below. In reality, the shell was only twenty feet down.
I took a deep breath and kicked my legs over my head to descend. I kicked, stroked, and then kicked again. The burning in my lungs grew, and the water’s pressure pushed on my ears and mask in a way I had never felt before.
A few feet down, I began to imagine monsters that might be lurking in the dark waters around me. Jules Verne-style giant squid swam alongside freakishly large great white sharks in the depths of my imagination, and I began to panic. I aborted my mission and shot up to the surface.
I panted heavily as I searched around for my dad, who, I finally noticed, was watching intently from a nearby swimming platform. I began giving him an elaborate description of the scary seascape that I imagined. Without being able to fully understand my garbled words, my dad recognized my fear and jumped into the water next to me. He grabbed me by the shoulders while treading water and explained that while I might be afraid, the only way to conquer my fears was to acknowledge and embrace them. He asked if I was willing to give up on the wonders of the deep, the shell, and the mermaid’s hair because I was afraid.
“I’m not afraid!” I exclaimed with all the bravado that a five-year-old could muster, even though I was.
My dad smiled and said that he would go down there with me.
Together, we spit in our masks like Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. After wiping the masks clean and putting them on, we took deep breaths and kicked our feet over our heads. We descended toward the imaginary sea monsters.
Once again, I became afraid as I kicked and stroked. Sensing my fright, my dad put a hand on my shoulder and ushered me further down. I looked at his face, which was oddly squished because of his mask, and saw him nod in encouragement. My dad’s presence and support steeled my youthful resolve, and I began furiously stroking towards the conch shell.
As the burning and pressure intensified, I finally reached the white shell. I planted my little feet on the sandy bottom, grabbed a hold of the shell, and pushed off with all of the energy that I had left.
After kicking furiously, I returned to the surface in triumph. While gasping for air, I placed the shell and mermaid hair—as I firmly believed it was—on the swimming platform.
As always, my dad was right there to congratulate me. Together, we investigated the bounty I had stolen from the monsters of Weeki Wachee Springs.
MY FATHER AND MY MOTHER, Valarie, met while they were teammates on a medical emergency response team in Reno, Nevada. My mom was a neonatal intensive care nurse, while my dad was a respiratory therapist. Together, they would board a small helicopter and fly to remote parts of Nevada to pick up sick or premature newborns, and bring them back to the better-equipped hospital in Reno.
After I was born, we moved to Florida to be closer to my grandparents. Before long, our family began expanding, first with my brother, Mitch, and then my youngest brother, Russ. In the hopes of eventually earning more money, my dad began taking night classes in electrical engineering, while my mom began picking up every possible overtime nursing shift.
To make things a little easier on my mother, her dad would often take me off her hands for a weekend, or even a full week. I absolutely loved these adventures with my grandpa. He lived about eight miles from Weeki Wachee Springs in Brooksville, Florida.
My grandpa, Forrest Lindsey, literally laid the foundation for his retirement by buying a plot of land and building Lindsey Acres, a small neighborhood subdivision. On the largest lot, he designed and built his dream home, where he and my grandma would enjoy their retirement. Even at the age of five, I knew I wanted to be just like my grandpa.
As I grew up and started going through old photos, I learned that my grandpa had served in the Navy. My grandma would later explain he had been a torpedo man during World War II. Incredibly, my grandfather’s honorable service in the Pacific had included the epic Battle of Midway, which famously took place six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Following his tours of duty, my grandpa returned to the East Coast to train new recruits. Then, his airplane crashed off the coast of New York, killing everyone aboard except for my grandpa, who would spend four years recovering from severe injuries. It was then that he fell in love with his nurse: my grandma.
After hearing my grandma’s story, I saw my grandpa in a whole new light. I couldn’t believe he had lived such an impressive life without feeling the need to speak about his enormous accomplishments. After I finally recognized his humility, courage, and unconditional love, my grandfather instantly became my hero. I could only hope to live a life worthy of his example.
ABOUT A YEAR LATER, my dad and I were attending an air show at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Seeking new work opportunities and a cheaper cost of living, my family had relocated there when I was six years old.
In amazement, I stared up at a small aircraft deftly maneuvering across the pale blue sky, as its daredevil antics left behind trails of white smoke. After an intricate series of barrel rolls, steep climbs, and terrifying dives, the aircraft disappeared from view. In the silence left behind by the departing aircraft, I surveyed the airstrip in front of me.
I glanced up at my father, who was standing to my left, and I noticed him dialing his binoculars toward a spot on the runway near the horizon. Following his gaze, I noticed the profile of a dark, ominous-looking aircraft that seemed to be constructed from many flat panels glued together into a strange, yet elegantly symmetrical and cohesive triangular shape. My dad then knelt down and explained that the craft was an F-117 stealth fighter, designed by the US military to creep under the radar systems of our enemies to spy and sometimes attack the bad guys.
My dad was always passionate about learning, reading, and understanding the way things worked, but there was a special respect exuded whenever he spoke about the military. We would spend hours playing catch outside while he told stories, including the exploits of his father, Vincent Snyder, who after serving in World War II, spent the rest of his life building US Navy ships that would carry future generations of sailors and Marines. As we tossed the ball back and forth, my dad explained how brave American warriors prevented evil dictators from threatening our way of life.
Always inspired by my father’s lessons, I would then go straight from playing catch to leading my G.I. Joe heroes—Duke, Sgt. Slaughter, and Snake Eyes—in ferocious combat assaults on our backyard’s small sand dunes. I would continue playing with G.I. Joes throughout my childhood, and like so many young American boys, dream of becoming a real-life warrior.
Sometimes, after the sinking sun brought us inside, I was allowed the special privilege of staying up late. My younger brothers and my newborn baby sister, Elyse, were put to bed while my father and I settled in for our favorite show, Tour of Duty, which was about an infantry platoon during the Vietnam War. Seated on the floor, my little feet tapped along to the beat of “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones as images of jungles, helicopters, and American soldiers flashed across the screen. My dad always sat behind me, rocking gently in his bentwood rocker, and answered my many questions about the show and our country’s military.
Occasionally, when my mom worked the night shift at the hospital, my dad and I would venture to the video store and pick out a war movie that we hadn’t seen. Our mutual favorite was Platoon. Over the years, we’d watch everything from Apocalypse Now to Stripes.
I didn’t realize it until much later in life, but my desire to serve came from these early experiences. I could hear my father’s deep-rooted respect for our armed services in his many lessons and stories as we stood outside playing catch. His own inner child was exposed whenever we went to air shows or when he’d let me stay up late with him to watch war movies. He always had a gleam in his eye when he spoke about his own dad, and I remember wanting to earn that same respect. I wanted to make my dad proud, and I wanted him to talk about me with that same gleam in his eye.
OUR TIME IN THE Colorado mountains didn’t last long. Struggling with the demands of four young kids and missing the warmth of the beach, my family returned to Florida when I was nine years old. I was a pretty awkward kid, and starting over in a new school wasn’t easy, but I was glad to be closer to my hero, Grandpa Lindsey, who we saw every few weekends. Sadly, though, Grandpa died of cancer less than three years later, leaving behind an incredible legacy and a family who loved him very much.
MY FATHER DROVE ME to the local pool to try out for the swim team when I was eleven years old. While my early dive into Weeki Wachee Springs had given me an appreciation for the water and confidence in my swimming ability, those feelings largely disappeared when I witnessed the swim team’s practice. These young athletes swam with great elegance and precision, and I doubted that I could ever reach their level.
After testing my raw, unpolished skills, the team’s tough and burly coach, Todd Mann, surprisingly told my dad that while I “needed work,” I could start practicing with the team the very next day.
My first practices were horrible, and I repeatedly voiced my frustrations to my dad. In response, he would tell me that nothing worth doing ever came easily. He said that if I truly dedicated myself, I would achieve success, and that the feeling of accomplishment after so much hard work would make the endeavor worthwhile.
I heeded my dad’s advice and resolved to work as hard as I could every day, even as other kids teased me for looking like a dork in my new Speedo swimsuit. Before long, I started making progress. Striving to continually improve then became almost addictive in nature.
A few summers later, I was well-trained, polished, and much stronger. I remember feeling elated while taking my first lead in a big race, only to feel crushed after realizing that I had lost by a few hundredths of a second.
After drying off, I looked up at my father expecting to see disappointment. To my surprise, he was sporting a huge grin.
“Great job, Brad,” he shouted in excitement. “That’s your best time ever by over forty-five seconds!”
I couldn’t believe it. How could my dad be so dim? He had completely glossed over the fact that despite all the effort, I had come up short. I lost! How could he not see that?
My father truly didn’t care whether I won or not. Whenever I struggled in the pool or in life, my dad would explain that each failure reveals an opportunity to make ourselves better. He taught me not to define my success by results, but by the virtue attained in the process. Even though I lost that race, my dad’s lesson erased any remaining doubts about whether I could compete and eventually succeed. From that day forward, I wanted to be a swimmer.
MY EARLY RESOLUTIONS TO swim and to serve were never written down. I didn’t discuss them with anyone, and honestly didn’t even think about these dreams or realize that they had become an integral part of my character. That was, until I was introduced to the United States Naval Academy.
I was offered a tour of Annapolis, Maryland, during my sophomore year of high school, and was instantly enamored with the legendary institution. With my eyes wide open and mouth agape, we strolled down Stribling Walk, paid homage to Tecumseh and John Paul Jones, and met a few midshipmen who greeted us with enthusiasm. The gravity of Navy’s Bancroft Hall sucked me in, and I knew with one hundred percent certainty that Annapolis was where I wanted to begin my adult life.
Before leaving town, I stopped by the Admissions Office and inquired about starting the painstaking process of becoming a midshipman. I was handed a small checklist of items and targets for aspiring candidates. That checklist may as well have been a religious text, as I studied and committed to its every letter for the rest of my high school years.
To Lead and to Serve
I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior in St. Petersburg, Florida, on September 11, 2001. That morning, my classmates and I were in hysterics as we discussed the jokes and innuendos of Aeschylus’s tragedies in AP English. We had all thoroughly enjoyed this class due to Mrs. Archer, a teacher with a keen ability to generate compelling dialogue about classic literature.
At about 9:00 a.m., another teacher darted into the room with a very sullen look on her face. Without even acknowledging that students were present, she whispered something into Mrs. Archer’s ear. Our teacher’s head bowed as she hurriedly turned on the television. The class fell quiet.
The screen was immediately filled with horrifying, confusing images of thick black smoke pouring out of one of the Twin Towers. After a few very puzzling moments, we collectively gasped as we watched a large passenger jet fly into the World Trade Center tower on the right side of the screen.
The world seemed to stand still as we hung on every word of the news anchors, who seemed just as astonished as we were. They then told us about plane crashes at the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. We watched in dismay as the Twin Towers collapsed in giant clouds of thick, gray dust.
For the rest of the day, the normal sounds of high school kids gossiping and slamming lockers were replaced with deafening silence. The fact that our collective freedom—and lives, for that matter—had just been gravely threatened was not lost on my group of friends. Even as teenagers, our hearts ached for the victims of this horrendous terrorist attack. I also remember returning home to blankly stare at the TV screen with my mom, dad, and siblings.
When I had woken up that fateful Tuesday morning, my dreams revolved around attending the Naval Academy, competing as a Division I swimmer, and becoming a Navy officer. When I went to bed on the night of September 11, 2001, those dreams were replaced with a strong determination to serve our country in whatever capacity I could.
I resolved that night that, even if my plans to attend the Naval Academy fell through, I would enlist in the Navy anyway. I wanted to dedicate my life to a cause that would prevent evil men like Osama bin Laden from attacking our homeland.
AS US TROOPS FOUGHT al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan on December 22, 2001, I was returning from an exhausting high school swim practice in Florida. When I got home, I was greeted by a thin FedEx envelope postmarked from Maryland.
My hands trembled as I ripped open the envelope to find a single leaf of high-quality letterhead, emblazoned with the Naval Academy’s crest. Across the page was a detailed memorandum, but my seventeen-year-old eyes moved directly to six words that would forever change my life: “Welcome to the Class of 2006!”
A few weeks later, another package would arrive from the same Annapolis address. It contained strict guidance for the Navy’s “Induction Day,” or “I-Day” as it is more commonly known. The packet stressed the physical rigors I would endure during my “plebe summer,” which all new midshipmen are required to participate in before the fall semester, including push-ups, sit-ups, and long runs in the summer heat. A significant number of incoming freshmen, or “plebes” as they are called at the Naval Academy, would drop out after being exposed to plebe summer’s rigors.
Every day for three months, I worked out even harder than I was already training as a swimmer. I felt physically ready for plebe summer after those ninety days, but as I prepared to leave everything I knew and loved in St. Petersburg, I began to wonder if I was mentally prepared for Annapolis.
I read all available literature on what to expect from plebe summer. I asked anyone and everyone for their advice. Out of all the help that I received, my father’s words stood out, as always.
“Be honest and be yourself,” he said. “Be quiet and humble unless called upon. Be determined, motivated, and always on your guard. Don’t let them see you suffer.”
That valuable advice was similar to what my dad had been saying as we worked toward success in the pool. Because I had been swimming since age eleven, I knew that I could push myself beyond perceived physical limits, while also accomplishing my goals with a strong mind. I hoped that things would be the same during plebe summer, but no matter how hard I tried to block out negative thoughts, uncertainty and doubt still loomed.
EACH “I-DAY” CANDIDATE WAS allowed to bring a small backpack containing a baseball glove and a tennis racket. As my father and I rummaged through our small Florida garage for the necessary items, I zeroed in on the Pee Wee Mag baseball glove that I had been using since I was six. The glove was tattered and no longer fit, but it was the only mitt I ever used during those backyard catches when my dad taught me what it meant to be an American.
As I loaded up my goods, my father noticed the wear and tear on my childhood glove and proceeded to dig around for his own. He insisted that I bring his glove to the Naval Academy instead. Deeply honored, I jammed the glove into my backpack.
I cherished my father’s gift. It comforted me that I was bringing a piece of his life with me into the unknown dangers of the post-9/11 world. I knew that when I looked at the glove in Annapolis and wherever I’d go next—maybe even a battlefield—that I would be able to hear my dad’s comforting words of encouragement. I would also remember our backyard catches, and that yearning desire I would always feel to make him proud.
I arrived in Annapolis on the night before I-Day. The evening was uneventful except for my visit to a Marine supply depot. I bought a small American flag, which would hang in my room for the next four-plus years. Even in the toughest moments, I knew the flag would always remind me what I was studying and training for.
After being awakened at 0500 the next morning by the clanging of metal and shouts of upperclassmen, I-Day officially began at 0900. As I stood in a large arena without knowing what to expect, my first task was to simply state my name and present a form of identification. I smiled at an attractive blonde woman as I showed her my Florida driver’s license.
She was unmoved by my gesture of friendliness. Instead, the woman curtly instructed me to memorize six digits: 066420. Those digits were now my “alpha code,” or identifier. In the eyes of my new Naval Academy superiors, I was no longer Brad Snyder from St. Petersburg. I was 066420.
While half of me felt like a prison inmate, the other half was thrilled. I couldn’t have been more proud or excited. Upon realizing that I really was doing this—becoming part of the US Naval Academy community—I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
My grin was met with dirty looks from the “cadre,” or Naval Academy detailers who barked orders and got us ready to be midshipmen. They yelled at me to stop looking around, stand at attention, and to wipe that stupid smirk off my face. Not wishing to call any more attention to myself, I took my place in line and intently stared at the back of the head in front of me.
We were then shepherded into a makeshift barbershop, where our hair—and perhaps the last remaining aspect of our individuality—was shaved off.
I was then presented with a small blue book that had Reef Points emblazoned on the front in gold lettering. All of us were matter-of-factly told to memorize the book, which was filled with Navy trivia and quotes from the likes of John Paul Jones and Teddy Roosevelt, cover to cover. The thought of memorizing every word seemed daunting, if not impossible.
During the rest of I-Day, various cadre members would invade my personal space and demand that I recite a Reef Points passage. The book had only been in my pocket for a few minutes, so how the heck was I supposed to have this stuff memorized already? The red-faced cadre members showed no sympathy, and berated me each time I responded with “I don’t know.” In addition to Reef Points, I would also be required to memorize the only five basic responses I would be allowed to direct at a member of the cadre. “I don’t know” was not one of them.
The next morning, we were required to swarm into a hallway at 0500 on the dot and scream “Go Navy!” or “Beat Army!” every time we moved a muscle. We then began the process of learning how to march in formation.
“066420!” one cadre shouted in my ear at 0503. “Do you know what time it is?!?”
We were not allowed to wear wristwatches, yet we were, of course, expected to be perfectly punctual. After only three minutes of my first full day as a midshipman, I was rapidly learning that the next four-plus years would be full of orders, even if they were completely illogical. My duty was not to question the demands of my superiors, but to do what I was told. In order to become a leader, you must first learn to be a follower.
“Sir, I’ll find out what time it is and report back, sir!” I said, probably sounding ridiculous.
Games like these filled each day of plebe summer. In between sessions of basic seamanship, leadership, swimming, and marching, we would time how fast we could change uniforms. We timed how fast we could make and remake our beds. We even timed how fast we could shower, even though we usually began sweating like pigs almost immediately after the competition.
As the summer wore on, however, we began to wear our sweaty stench with pride. We gelled as a group, learning how to help one another. Instead of becoming flustered, frustrated, or otherwise upset when we were yelled at, my class began to understand these games for what they were: a much-needed introduction to military life. With our country at war, it was even more important to quickly learn these urgent lessons.
As I developed mentally, my physical state suffered slightly. In high school, I had struggled to keep weight on. I was swimming at least two and a half hours a day; sometimes up to six or seven miles. I was probably burning up to 8,000 calories per day. During plebe summer, however, I was consuming the same number of calories per day at the dining hall without burning off nearly as much. During the six-week period of plebe summer, I gained 14 pounds.
I felt terrible in the water after gaining so much weight. I was also concerned about whether I would be able to swim competitively at the Division I level. As my plebe summer ended and my first swimming season at Navy got underway, I struggled badly in my opening meet. The poor results in successive competitions prompted me to train even harder, which began to negatively affect my grades.
I had never needed to work very hard in high school, but the academic workload of a Naval Academy midshipman is a completely different story. For the first time, I struggled to learn new material. I did not have my dad around to explain the complex math involved in college-level engineering courses, and my photographic memory became overloaded due to the sheer volume of information. I rarely even got a “B” in high school, so the sight of my first “F” at Navy was startling. I soon fell behind, and the prospect of being tossed out of the Academy terrified me.
Another huge challenge was the fact that I woke up at 0430 each morning for swim practice. Almost every night, I would return to my room in a worn-down, exhausted state. With my alarm clock always set for 0430 the following day, the last thing I usually felt like doing was cracking open a book.
While the punishing training regimen had a hugely negative impact on my grades, it finally began to pay off in the pool. When I won my first Division I event against Army—our fiercest rival—I heard my dad’s words of encouragement inside my head as I made my final kicks and touched the wall in triumph.
As we celebrated beating Army in that big meet, I finally felt like I belonged at the Naval Academy. Not only did I get to wear a uniform that said “Navy” on the front, but I had driven myself to be part of something bigger than myself.
The Dark Ages
Advance praise for Fire in My Eyes
Fire in My Eyes is a testament to the extraordinary courage and unwavering dedication of the men and women serving in the US Armed Forces. Lieutenant Brad Snyder's remarkable story is sure to captivate and inspire.” Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense
Fire in My Eyes by Brad Snyder and Tom Sileo tells an unforgettable story of heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield. It's an inspiring journey that leads us through darkness to victory.”Eric Greitens, New York Times bestselling author of Resilience and former Navy SEAL
Brad Snyder is an American hero. I first met him at Walter Reed and thanked him for his brave service to the nation. As a wounded veteran and two-time gold-medal swimmer, his story is the American story of a patriot who never gave up fighting to live and to win for his country.”Leon Panetta, former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense
Brad Snyder represents the true essence of a warrior. Facing a life-changing injury that would cripple the strongest of individuals, he demonstrated the willpower of an American warfighter. His story is one of courage that we all need to read.”Captain Florent Groberg, US Army (Ret.), Medal of Honor recipient
New York Journal of Books, 8/19/16
Every once in a while, every American needs to pick up and read a book like Fire in My Eyes Snyder's story is a needed reminder that the very best of us continue to risk their lives serving in our armed forces with courage, dedication and a deep and abiding love for our country An inspiring tale.”
NavyHistory.org (website of the Naval Historical Foundation), 7/30/16
A visceral story of fortitude, of striding into harm's way time and again for the sake of others The prose is strong and authentic Veterans, especially service academy graduates and disposaleers, will connect with their own experiences due to Snyder and Sileo's superior composition Fire in My Eyes must sit prominently next to other phenomenal stories like Elizabeth Kauffman Bush's America's first Frogman and Aaron Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. To those aspiring to serve Fire in My Eyes is mandatory reading Through these pages they will truly understand what service is, what one is called to do.”
"A story of tragedy that turns to gold...Snyder gives a first-hand account of what it is like to serve in today's military - high stress, intense training, and loss of friends and loved ones...A truly inspirational story."
- "The book recounts, in vivid and exciting detail, Snyder's training as a bomb disposal expert, his deployment to Iraq in 2008, and his subsequent deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. The story of his first attempt to disarm a real IED mortar in the field is told with heart-stopping detail...Fire in My Eyes is the altogether inspiring account of a wounded warrior and hero."—Internet Review of Books
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Da Capo Press