The trigger plate for the device was crude but deadly and effective. An old soup can had been cut in half, each half smashed and flattened with a few stomps. A small piece of foam torn from an old seat cushion held the two metal pieces apart with a shoe lace stitched through punched holes acting as a hinge. A small nine volt battery and two lengths of common wire connected the trigger plate to a blasting cap, essentially a big firecracker, which was likely smuggled from Pakistan. The blasting cap was sunk deep into a 20 pound charge of ammonium nitrate…a type of fertilizer that has been processed a little at a time in a small kitchen blender. The 20 pounds of ammonium nitrate, blasting cap, wire and small battery were all carefully packed into an over-sized blue plastic milk jug. Wires ran some distance from the plastic jug to the remote soup-can trigger plate. Depress the trigger plate, contact is made and a huge explosion follows.
Navy Lieutenant Bradley Snyder, Annapolis graduate, had seen many of these devices in training and on patrols. As one of a relatively small number of E.O.D. (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) specialists, Lieutenant Snyder had received the best training in the world on how to locate and disarm many different types of explosive devices.
I was sitting in Lieutenant Snyder’s hospital room at the Haley Veteran’s Hospital, Poly-Trauma Unit in Tampa, Florida and my digital recorder was running. As a disabled Vietnam Vet, this was the hospital that provided my primary care and I had spent many hours here interacting with veterans, young and old. This was to be the first of a number of interviews for my next book which I was thinking of titling “Purple Heart” or “The Purple Heart Chronicles”. I obtained and recorded the necessary permissions, gathered the necessary personal data and then mostly listened, interrupting only to ask for clarifications as Lieutenant Snyder spoke in a somewhat detached and ultimately professional manner about the events that put him here.
His wounds were still fresh, the scabs had only recently fallen off and the fresh, new bright-pink tissue on his face and arms was in stark contrast to his normal skin coloration. But there were other wounds, the wounds I couldn’t see…the ones that kept him from sleeping. I suspected those wounds were causing his almost autonomic responses. I could be wrong but the detachment and cautious, professional demeanor may have had as much to do with emotional trauma as it did with his ultimate military bearing and professionalism.
Lieutenant Snyder: Young, educated, and brilliantly trained Annapolis graduate. Lieutenant Bradley Snyder had been blown up and was now completely blind; his arm, eye sockets and face now displaying the obvious signs of explosive trauma. He would frequently lift the dark glasses as he spoke, sliding them to rest atop his head as he used tissues to wipe streaming tears from his obviously damaged, eyes.
“I think my left eye will be replaced by a prosthesis soon”, he said. “Not sure yet about the right eye. I’m permanently blind in both eyes but there is still some assessment happening about prosthetics.”
Lieutenant Snyder had been on a covert patrol in Afghanistan; one of many. His patrol this day was made up of multi-national group of special-forces from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines along with elite members of the Afghan Special Forces and an interpreter. The “package” had been covertly airlifted by helicopter to a drop point some distance from their first target. Their orders were to make their way to several target locations and seek out enemy combatants. Often, he explained, they would be given playing cards with the faces of those specific individuals they sought. Other times, their missions were less directed and more general, in order to collect intelligence information.
“We always chose the path of most resistance”, he explained. “The enemy placed I.E.D.s along well worn trails, paths and roadways so we sought out the most difficult terrain without pathways or trails.”
“Our assault team had two E.O.D. Specialists, me and one other. We alternated taking the point. My counterpart was on point and I was in the middle of the patrol. He was in the lead with a metal detector. I could see a compound through the brush some distance ahead. The terrain was rough. We had to cross an empty irrigation ditch. The “point” chose a crossing a short distance from the remnants of a collapsed foot bridge that had been down for many years. He had a metal detector and jumped across without incident. The next man followed, also without incident. The third man approached the ditch and stepped on a trigger plate, setting of the det (short for detonation). The explosion caused that man to suffer an immediate double amputation, projecting his torso about 30 feet across the irrigation ditch to the other side. The man behind him was also an instant double amputee but he remained on the near side of the ditch.
Everyone dropped down and froze, taking up their field of fire. I ran forward and was instantly confused by what I saw. Some of our team was on the far side of the ditch and some was on the near side. It took me a few seconds to assess the situation. We radioed for a medivac and several of our team began to move the injured man from the near side of the ditch toward the landing zone where the medivac would be arriving. It’s very difficult to carry a person without legs. It’s awkward. I knew we would do better if we had a litter for the second man on the far side of the ditch. I grabbed a high-tech folding litter and figured I could get across the ditch to the other injured man pretty quickly. The corpsman came forward to work on the victim on the near side of the ditch. I grabbed the litter and sought my route across the ditch. I jumped across and apparently landed on top of a second trigger plate. I remember hearing the det. It must have knocked me out. I woke up in a few seconds with a terrible ringing in my ears and the sound of screaming. My right ear drum had ruptured. Once I realized it was me who was screaming, I stopped.
I heard the loud voice of our team leader. “Who Got Hit?”
“It was Brad…Brad got hit”, I yelled back to him. I was on my back, lying in a depression in the ground.
I was really foggy but I remember I did a quick self check. Okay…two arms, two legs, I’m good! I couldn’t believe it! Quickly, the corpsman was there, cutting away my gear, checking for damage. My right hand hurt and my weapon was gone. The force of the explosion had ripped it from me and broken and torn my hand in the process.
After a quick assessment, he said, “Brad, you look pretty good…your face took a hit but I think you’re okay. Do you think you can stand up?”
“I don’t know….I’ll try”
As I stood, I remember looking down at my legs and arms. They were there. But after taking only a few steps, my sight disappeared. I couldn’t see. I was blind.
I felt quite honored to spend time with Lieutenant Snyder over the course of a couple of months. He’s soon headed to Georgia for specialty care. He’s in line for a seeing-eye dog too and he’s excited! Lieutenant Bradley Snyder is only one veteran among millions of veterans from America’s many wars and conflicts. Not all veteran’s see combat or are wounded but all go where they are directed and do what our politicians tell us we must do. I am proud to have served my country with the U.S. Air Force with time in Vietnam and share, I’m certain, your pride in our armed forces and the men and women who have served and are now serving.
Soldiers are not politicians. They do not get to choose their conflicts. They are the instruments of complex global politics directed by those we elect.
On this Veteran’s Day, flying a flag is the easiest thing we can do. If you have a veteran’s hospital near you….or if you know a member of your community who has served, it would be a great thing to just say thanks! That’s all…just say thanks.
Oh, and if you can help a vet find employment, I’m sure they and their family would appreciate it.