September 22, 2016
(+++) MORE THAN TRUE GRIT
Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory. By Brad Snyder and Tim Sileo. Da Capo. $25.99.
Multimillionaire sports figures who metaphorically spit on the United States by deliberately disrespecting its flag, national anthem and other symbols, while retaining every bit of the grotesque amounts of money the country has made it possible for them to make in return for doing meaningless things of no value or importance whatsoever in some “professional” “game,” really ought to read a book such as Fire in My Eyes, if they have sufficient attention span for it (doubtful). The wealthy pond scum would surely be unable to “relate to” the pride taken by Brad Snyder in his work, in the military and in his country. But maybe, just maybe, they could relate to his success in athletics – one year after being blinded on the battlefield in defense of a country where ignorant fools have every right to pocket millions while pretending to care about “social justice” or anything else beyond lining their own pockets and singing their own praises.
Yes, it was one year to the day after he set off an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in an explosion that threw bomb fragments into his right hand and across his face – costing him both his eyes – that Lieutenant Snyder won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Games in London in 2012. The one-year anniversary of an event such as Snyder’s blinding is referred to by wounded veterans as “Alive Day,” and that is certainly what it was for Snyder.
By the way, he lost his sight while rapidly clearing a path to allow fellow service members to rescue two men who had been severely wounded by a previous IED explosion. No word on those men’s skin color or politics.
Interestingly, in his autobiography, written with the assistance of Tom Sileo, Snyder does not simply produce a memoir about recovering from a devastating injury: the IED explosion and recovery take up only the last third of the book, which as a result is weaker than it would have been if more of the focus had been on being blinded and fighting back to win the gold a year later. Snyder’s overall story is one of persistence, which he discusses not only in the context of competitive swimming but also in terms of the leadership lessons he learned at the U.S. Naval Academy. There is a good deal here on what is required to complete one of the most difficult courses in the military: a mental and physical curriculum combining diving and bomb disposal. There is also much here about resilience, but Snyder, for most of the book, avoids delving too deeply into his own physical comeback, instead discussing the devastating emotions called up by loss of friends and loved ones. Snyder is a man who strode willingly, time and again, without multimillion-dollar rewards or any prospect of them, into real and enormous danger, not into some manufactured “sport” arena with everybody padded and re-padded and watched over by officials who prevent anything more than symbolic and minor violence.
All this is to say that Fire in My Eyes is a story packed with authenticity, and one packed to a great extent – indeed, in many ways too great an extent – with details of military training and deployment. Snyder is not unthinkingly jingoistic, although he is certainly patriotic – and thoughtful about being so. He is also aware, increasingly so in the later part of the book, of the enormous gulf between being an officer in charge of an elite military squad and being a blinded veteran who has trouble putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Snyder’s unwillingness to dwell on everyday challenges of that sort is admirable, but it makes his book less-compelling reading for anyone who will never serve in a capacity remotely like his. When Snyder does, as the book nears its end, become genuinely thoughtful about his life – when he discusses the metaphor of cane use to bring readers into his now-slow pace of life and warns of the dangers of getting lost in “the Delta,” a dangerous valley between what you used to be and what you have become – the book approaches profundity and from time to time attains it. In its earlier sections, though, and indeed for more than half its length, it is simply too matter-of-fact to draw in readers who lack significant familiarity with (or interest in) modern military training.
If Fire in My Eyes is flawed, however, the one way in which it excels from start to finish is through Snyder’s humility. Certainly readers are welcome to consider Snyder heroic – and this being a free country, others are entitled to deem him jingoistic and manipulated into harm’s way by the military-industrial complex or something of that ilk. But Snyder himself never dons the “hero” mantle and quite clearly eschews praise and applause – those things for which overpaid “sports” nonentities constantly strive – for himself and his sacrifice. Snyder’s life took him from battlefield heroism to the heroism of everyday existence – something to which readers can relate if they accept that everyone has obstacles to overcome and a life that can change dramatically in an instant. Those who will never encounter an IED owe Snyder thanks and praise, neither of which he seeks. The human garbage that disrespects men like Snyder and the nation they defend – all to allow self-loving trolls to spew their ugly hatred – deserves to be forgotten as surely as Snyder and his sacrifice deserve to be remembered.