Alive Day – A Reflection by Lt. Brad Snyder, USN (Ret)

Pastor’s Note: Brad Snyder is a Swimmer on the US Paralympic Team. He lost his eyesight from an IED explosion while deployed in service as an EOD officer in September 2011. Brad’s service to the men with whom he served is unparalleled. Since returning, he has continued to aggressively train as a swimmer, bringing great honor and several medals to the United States. His reflection below, while not overtly religious, can be greatly applied to the Catholic life. His thoughts can be found on his own blog, and they appear here unedited, with the permission of the author. For more about Brad, see his website.

My dad gave me a small white Timex alarm clock for Christmas when I was around 12 years old. He gave it to me so that I could start getting myself up early in the morning for swim practice. For six years, I got up before 5 AM most mornings, prepared my swim bag, brewed a pot of coffee, and when it was ready, I would prepare a cup to offer my dad when I woke him. Neither of us ever said much in the early morning hours. We would silently climb into our minivan, at first just me, and then as my siblings grew, so did our morning crew. Dad would always tune to “Smooth Jazz” while we drove to the pool. He would patiently wait in the stands adjacent to the pool while we knocked out a few miles, then we’d all drive home to go about the rest of our day. For eleven more years I woke up every morning to the same alarm clock. That alarm clock woke me up for swim practice at the Naval Academy, for morning “PT” during Navy Dive School, for early morning study sessions during EOD School, for my flight to Iraq, and on the afternoon of September 6th before a combat mission in a small valley in the Khandahar province of Afghanistan.

On the morning of September 7th, I didn’t need my alarm clock because I was already awake. As I watched the sun rise in the east that morning, I crouched atop the roof of a small mud walled building. Other members of my commando unit were in a small courtyard below me, obscured by the darkness of dawn and a four-foot wall, comprised of the same material as the building currently supporting my watch position. I carefully studied everything between me and the horizon, looking out for anything that might pose a hazard to me or my unit. As my gaze scanned westward from the sun peering over the horizon in the east sky, I could trace the outline of a growing mountain range against the still starry sky. The most prominent peak was directly north of me, and truly looked majestic. Its sharp rock outcroppings turned a reddish orange as rays of sunlight penetrated more and more of my field of view. Shadows began to extend from the base of the rock outcroppings into a barren red sand desert to my west and south.

The picturesque concentric circles of sand dunes etched into the terrain by the wind were a stark contrast to the jagged rocks to my north. My gaze drifted back to the east and followed the luscious vineyards in the mountain valley surrounding me. I tilted my head back and looked at the sky, which now presented a gorgeous array of purple, blue, red and orange. The brushstrokes of vibrant color were glittered with the fading stars of the night sky. I smiled as I was struck by the immense beauty of this land that was so marred by violence and evil. I awoke again that morning a few hours later. A searing hot pain shot across my face. My battered left eye looked down at my crumpled body, lying on my side in the fetal position, on a bed of the vegetation I had been admiring earlier. The rest of my already limited field of view was further shrouded by a thick cloud of grey smoke and dust. Instead of my alarm clock, all I could hear was a dull and constant ringing, like the solid tone of a heart monitor in an ER that has just gone flat.

For a moment that seemed to stitch forever, I just laid there, with no intention of doing anything else. My mind was blank, like the surface of a pool with absolutely no disturbance. The first thought to ripple across the top of the water was the fact that my arms and legs were still intact. In that moment, this fact alone convinced me that I had not survived the blast. In all prior experiences with such blasts, I had not known anyone to come away with all four limbs. I was surely waiting to transition to whatever comes next. My thoughts drifted to all of those whom I have loved and lost. I thought of my dad, my grandpa, my grandma, and my Uncle John. I thought of Tyler and Tara, and for a moment I was thrilled at the thought that I might get to see them again soon. I thought of my mom and became saddened at the image of her alone crying as she learned of my death. She would hug my sister and my two brothers as they all mourned to the sound and erratic rhythm of their collective sobs. I knew in time they would reconcile my death and move on. They knew I would want that. I hoped they would take comfort in the fact that I had died doing what I loved, with a brotherhood that few get to experience. I hoped they would know that I died happy, fulfilled, and content. I had loved my family, I had loved a woman, and I had loved my country. I had worked hard, and had enjoyed life to the fullest. I had great experiences, and some awful ones, but if you strung them all together, I believed they added up to a full life.

As I laid there waiting for my dad, or my grandpa to come and show me the way, I became irritated at how long I had been stuck in this strange purgatory. Neither alive or dead, I just laid there for seconds which seemed to stretch on for eternities. Before long, I grew tired of waiting. Again, I looked down at my battered body, and began to wonder if I was wrong, and I had in fact actually survived. I attempted to wiggle my fingers and groaned as lightning shot up my right arm. Surely pain of that magnitude wouldn’t exist in purgatory! I must have survived! I was still alive! As I came to this new realization, I became aware of the shouting from my teammates. They were looking for me and couldn’t find me amongst the thick cloud of smoke and dust. I shouted to them, and in a moment I felt strong hands grab the shoulder straps of my gear and jerk me back to life.

I could have died on September 7th, 2011. All things considered; I should have died. I had been standing next to a 40 lb explosion, the blast of which hit me directly in the face (think about that next time you use the phrase “things really blew up in my face…”) I had thought about it and had accepted my death. My life had “flashed before my eyes” and I was proud and content with what I had seen. But I didn’t die. I am still alive. I can’t speak for all who have had a near-death experience, but for me this experience was incredibly liberating. People frequently ask what it is that has allowed me to accept my blindness and move on, and every time I smile and think about the first time in a long time that I woke up without my dad’s alarm clock. I awoke for the first time where I truly understood what it means to be alive. Today is my alive day. Today is the day. Two years ago, I woke up thinking I was dead. I was then offered a second chance. I was offered a second chance to tell my mom I love her, to buy dinner for a friend, or to buy a drink for a stranger. I was offered a second chance to thank those who have helped me along the way, and to apologize to those I have hurt. I was offered a second chance to enjoy a fine meal, and to feel the joy of a puppy licking my face. The world is so beautiful in so many ways, and I now have the second chance to enjoy it as much as possible. I tell this story in an attempt to offer you the same chance. You don’t have to get blown up to enjoy the world the way I do. All you have to do is make a choice. Make the choice to enjoy each moment. Enjoy each meal, each kiss, each sunset, each drink. It’s that easy. I hope when you wake up tomorrow, you will take the time to realize that you are truly lucky to be alive! Happy Alive Day!