Fire in My Eyes: Tom Sileo Discusses His New Book About an American Hero
The Stream senior editor shares true story of a U.S. Navy Lieutenant who won Paralympic gold precisely one year to the day after being blinded in Afghanistan.
‘I am not going to let my blindness build a brick wall around me. I’d give my eyes one hundred times again to have the chance to do what I have done, and what I can still do.” — Brad Snyder
On September 7, 2011, U.S. Navy LT Brad Snyder, a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer with SEAL Team Ten, was blinded by an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion while serving in southern Afghanistan. Exactly one year later — to the very day — Brad won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Brad shares his remarkable story of courage and comeback, personal tragedy and Olympic triumph in a new book out today called Fire in My Eyes. His co-author is The Stream’s own Tom Sileo, recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2016 General Oliver P. Smith Award.
Tom talked to The Stream about this powerful, page-turning story.
Stream Interview with Author Tom Sileo
Stream: How did you hear about his story?
Tom Sileo: I heard about Brad Snyder’s story from one of my closest friends, Brad Allen, who helped us get in touch. During my phone conversation with Brad Snyder, I was immediately struck by his friendliness and warmth. He told me that he’d listened to my first book, Brothers Forever, which is about two fallen heroes who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, which Brad graduated from as well. Almost immediately, we developed a rapport that only strengthened as we worked on the book, which Brad wrote to honor his family, friends, fellow EOD warriors and particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including one of Brad’s best friends, U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposalman Second Class Tyler Trahan.
Stream: What did co-writing Brad’s story teach you about the kind of people who seek out EOD duty?
TS: That they are some of the most courageous human beings on the planet. Brad didn’t become an elite EOD warrior overnight. After earning a shot at entering the EOD program during his four challenging years in Annapolis, Brad completed one of the most intricate, grueling training regimens in the military. He deployed to Iraq and then to Afghanistan, where he suffered his injury. Even after losing his vision, though, Brad refused to give up. I think that tells you a lot about what the EOD community is all about.
Stream: The book is subtitled “An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory.” But you share how Brad’s battle really began earlier, with a DUI arrest and a trio of tragic deaths.
TS: I give Brad so much credit for including the DUI arrest in the book. It says a lot about his character that Brad wants others to learn from a terrible mistake that nearly ended his military career and even more importantly, could have injured or killed others. It’s one of the most powerful sections of the book.
Indeed, Brad suffered three tragic losses in a short time frame: Tyler, who was killed in Iraq; Brad’s ex-girlfriend, who committed suicide; and Brad’s father, who was a towering figure in his life. To once again highlight Brad’s courage: Brad was in Afghanistan when his dad died, but refused to leave his unit early despite being permitted to do so. Despite what happened next, I think Brad would tell you that he doesn’t regret staying in Afghanistan for a second. He wanted to complete his mission with his men.
Stream: Now it’s September 7, 2011. What happened?
TS: Brad was risking his life to help wounded Afghan soldiers when another roadside bomb detonated. Brad’s vivid description of what it felt like to essentially die, come back to life and realize that he was blind is some of the most powerful prose I’ve ever read. I can’t wait for readers to experience it.
Stream: He talked about as he was in the early stages of recovery, the “Hero Brad” vs “The Ugly Brad.” What’s that, and what would you say was the turning point in his recovery?
TS: Without speaking for Brad, I would guess that a visit from another blinded combat veteran was one of the key moments in helping him realize that he wasn’t “Hero Brad” or “Ugly Brad,” he was just “Brad.” It’s also important to remember that Brad wasn’t just healing at Walter Reed and other VA hospitals. He was adapting to an entirely new existence of living with a disability. To think that Brad had only been blind for one year when he won two gold medals in London is almost beyond comprehension, even after working with Brad on this book for more than a year.
Stream: What does it mean to you that one year, precisely, to the day, Brad was in London winning a Paralympic Gold Medal in swimming?
TS: Having met and interviewed dozens of our country’s brave wounded veterans, I think it underscores the significance of a term you’ll hear a lot in the military community: Alive Day. Instead of identifying the anniversary of the day they were wounded as such, many wounded veterans and their families call it their Alive Day. The fact that Brad had the opportunity to accomplish something so significant on his anniversary will serve as inspiration to not just other wounded veterans, but to all Americans. I think that’s why we used “Alive Day” as the title for that chapter.
Stream: What do you and Brad want readers to get out of this book?
TS: I want to make very clear that Fire in My Eyes is Brad’s book. Using a special laptop computer, he typed these words with the same passion that led him to the gold medal podium in London. This book is a truly incredible accomplishment for Brad. I am deeply honored to have played a small role in helping him assemble the story in a way that will inspire Americans of every background.
There are so many harrowing moments in Fire in My Eyes where Brad could have quit. I know that I would have if I had been in his shoes. But Brad, like so many of his fellow veterans, kept going. If there is ever an individual that truly deserves his gold medals, it’s LT Brad Snyder.
Stream: You’ve written a lot over the years about our nation’s finest, what’s different about this one? What did you personally take away from this project?
TS: That our nation’s veterans are national treasures. Brad is living proof that this generation of volunteer warriors has stepped forward to serve because they are selfless patriots. I have so much respect for anyone who puts on the uniform, which is something I never had the courage to do. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to read Fire in My Eyes, because brave Americans like Brad Snyder are the people our children should grow up learning about.
Fire in My Eyes Out Today, Brad Back Competing in Paralympics
There are more chapters to come in Brad’s story. This coming Wednesday marks the start of the 2016 Paralympic Games, where Brad will once again compete, in Rio. Incredibly, the opening ceremonies coincide with the 5-year anniversary of Brad’s injury. But as we’ve already learned with this story, “incredible” is a given.
Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory by Brad Snyder and Tom Sileo is available right now on Amazon and at booksellers everywhere. Follow Brad, Tom and Fire in My Eyes at the book’s Facebook page and Instagram. If you want to know more about Tom’s determined effort to tell the stories of our military heroes and their families, enjoy this Palm Beach Post profile published last week.