Speakers in the 1919 Evergreen Hospital Public Speaking Contest. (Evergreen Review, 1:2 (February 1920), 18/Internet Archive)

Bradley Snyder and the Legacy of First World War Blind Veteran Rehabilitation

On April 30 People Magazine featured a story on Brad Snyder, a young swimmer seeking a gold medal at the summer Olympics in Rio this year. Snyder’s journey is extraordinary in and of itself, having served two tours of duty in the Middle East as a bomb disposal technician. The story is perhaps most intriguing, however, because he swam for the gold as a veteran blinded in the Afghanistan War and will do so again this year.

Snyder lost his sight during his second tour of duty in 2011 after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED). He joined a small group of the American population that has lost their sight due to military service. In current wars, the percentage of veterans who suffer eye injuries hovers around ten percent.1 While this is higher than in previous wars, the overall numbers are fewer.

Reflecting on his injury in Afghanistan, Snyder stated, “In that moment, I had thought through everything and had reconciled my death, and thought, ‘I’m okay. I’m okay to pass on.” On the idea of his new injury Snyder said, “I saw an opportunity to prove to my family and my community that I wasn’t going to be a victim.”2 Snyder won two gold medals and a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in 2012 and will be swimming for gold this year in Rio.

What is perhaps most interesting about Snyder’s competition this year is that he will swim just one year shy of the one-hundredth anniversary of the opening of the first major institute for blind veteran care in the United States. He will be carrying on the long legacy of First World War blind veteran rehabilitation. On November 27, 1917 the United States government opened General Hospital No. 7 in Baltimore, Maryland for the purpose of “physical, mental, and vocational reconstruction of economically blinded soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians in the Government service.”3 The government sought to help the men become independent and productive members of society by equipping them with the skills to earn a living.

Formerly General Hospital No. 7, the first major institute for blind veteran care in the US is now the now the Francis Xavier Knott Humanities Center at Loyola University, in Maryland. (Evan P. Sullivan | CC BY-NC-SA)
Formerly General Hospital No. 7, the first major institute for blind veteran care in the US is now the now the Francis Xavier Knott Humanities Center at Loyola University, in Maryland. (Evan P. Sullivan | CC BY-NC-SA)

One of the first doughboys to receive services at General Hospital No. 7, or “Evergreen” as they often called it, was Sergeant William H. Zimmerman. Zimmerman lost his sight in France after his ordnance truck flipped and he landed in a shell hole. Reflecting on his experiences in an interview in the rehabilitation magazine Carry On, Zimmerman noted in similar fashion to other disabled veterans of the time that he needed to “make good.” “I made up my mind then and there that being blind was not half as bad as not making good.”4

“Making good” was a term that denoted achieving economic and physical self-sufficiency. Veterans either trained in new vocations or re-learned former trades. Just as important to “making good” was the physical. Rehabilitationists expected and trained the men to be independent and strong. The U.S. government found physical rehabilitation so important that a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a bowling alley were built at General Hospital No. 7. Similarly, the institute held field days where the men flashed their masculine spirit in various sporting competitions.

Snyder can be considered one of the torchbearers, carrying on the twenty-first century legacy of his doughboy predecessors. Of course, each individual experiences injury differently and looks to get different outcomes out of rehabilitation. Similarly, the experiences of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differ greatly from veterans of the First World War in many ways — medical treatments for injuries have dramatically improved, for instance, and society at large has become more inclusive to people with disabilities.

Five years after his injury, Snyder does not view his disability as self-altering. In a recent article he stated, “It took my identity being stripped away for me to realize who I had been all along.”5 Having been a swimmer from a young age, Snyder returned to the pool following his injury and has made a name for himself in the ranks of the world’s greatest athletes. Even more important, according to Snyder, was the idea of proving to his family that his blindness was not the end. At a welcome home party held for him in St. Petersburg, Florida, he said, “I was hungry for the opportunity to prove this idea that I’m not a victim … I wanted to show that I’m not suffering, I’m adapting. I’m struggling a little bit, but watch me. I’m going to succeed.” Indeed, Snyder feels that any pain and struggle has faded away when he reaches the pool.6

Bradley Snyder with Coach Brian Loeffler. (David Gilkey/NPR)
Bradley Snyder with Coach Brian Loeffler. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Bradley Snyder moved to Baltimore shortly after returning home to begin training in competitive swimming with Brian Loeffler, Loyola University’s swim coach.7 A portion of Loyola University’s campus was the location of General Hospital No. 7, where the blind veterans of the First World War went through rehabilitation and, in many cases, engaged in sports that included swimming in the on-site pool. Snyder is truly walking in his forbearers’ footsteps, creating his own story from their legacy.

Snyder’s extraordinary story provides opportunity to reflect on the centenary of the First World War, the first major military program for the care of veterans blinded in war, and how that history is relevant today. General Hospital No. 7 provided opportunity for standardized practices for veteran rehabilitation and many of the ideas developed during its existence contributed to the formation of major veteran institutions of the Second World War, like the Blind Veterans Association. Snyder doubtless carries on some of the influences of General Hospital No. 7 in its efforts to help First World War Veterans “make good.” As he swims for gold this summer in Rio, Snyder will be “making good” on his own terms.

Notes

  1. Allen Thach, Ophthalmic Care of the Combat Casualty, xv. Return to text.
  2. Tiare Dunlap, “ Blind Afghanistan War Veteran Will Go for Gold at Paralympic Games in Rio,” People, April 30, 2016, accessed, May 10, 2016.Return to text.
  3. Charles Lynch, Frank W. Weed, and Loy McAfee, eds., The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War (Washington: U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office, 1923-1929).Return to text.
  4. W.H. Zimmerman, “Our First Blinded Soldier: He is Re-educated and Will Make Good,” A.E.F. Carry On, 1:1 (June 1918). Return to text.
  5. Nathan Fenno, “ Through the darkness, blind veteran Brad Snyder becomes one of the best swimmers in the world,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016.Return to text.
  6. Ibid. Return to text.
  7. Ibid. Return to text.

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