Blinded EOD Tech to Swim on U.S. Paralympic Team

Blinded Navy Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer Brad Snyder, right, is guided by his younger brother Mitchell as they race together to win the 1500 meter gold medal in track at the 2012 Warrior Games. Since his combat injury, Snyder has focused on track and swimming to bring new vision to his life. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

U.S. Paralympian and wounded warrior Navy Lt. Brad Snyder can swim 100 meters in less than a minute.

That’s almost Michael Phelps-fast.

Even if the 28-year-old explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer still had his sight, a sub-sixty-second 100-meter time would be worthy of national praise. Without it, Snyder clocks in as one of the fastest visually impaired swimmers on the planet.

Over the weekend, he clinched his spot on the U.S. Paralympic swim team bound for London with a blockbuster race in another of his favorite events , the 400-meter freestyle.  Snyder took 54 seconds off his previous best time, finishing in 4:35:62.

It Happened So Recently

Just this past September, the former captain of his Naval Academy swim team was leading a patrol in Afghanistan on a life-saving mission to find and disarm improvised explosive devices (IED’s) placed by Taliban militants.

As Snyder’s team moved through farm land, a mine went off injuring two allied Afghan fighters at the front of their column. When Snyder rushed to their aid, he stepped on a second pressure plate, setting off another explosion. The initial shock wave knocked his goggles off, leaving his eyes exposed to the blinding flash of the blast.

He knew he was hurt pretty bad, but he still had some vision as he walked to the extraction helicopter. When he arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a few days later, however, he was told he would lose his sight forever.

A Brother’s Love

Snyder had no plans of playing the victim. Just weeks after he was released from the hospital he began running with his younger brother—connected by a short piece of rope and a lifetime of mutual respect.

“I’ve always looked up to him,” said 24-year-old Mitchell Snyder. “He’s my older brother and he’s always been such an inspiration to me growing up. He’s such a tireless worker.  There was no way I was going to let him sit around. That’s not who he is.”

The Snyder brothers ran together for weeks before Brad decided he wanted to get back in the pool “where he belonged.”

“The water is my home,” he said. “It’s my safe-haven. It’s a place where without my sight I still feel like I can be free to push myself physically, and it’s the only place where I don’t feel anxiety, like I’m about to run into something or hurt myself.”

New Vision

At the 2012 Warrior Games—an annual Paralympics competition held in Colorado Springs and sponsored by the USO—Snyder re-entered the world of competitive swimming for the first time since his injury.

“Here’s a guy with everything in the world going for him,” said Will Wilson, head coach of the Navy / Coast Guard Team. “A young lieutenant out there on the pointy end of the spear saving lives and he has a bad day—a bad day that robbed him of his sight. Fortunately it didn’t rob him of his soul, which has given him new vision toward competitive swimming and track.”

For Snyder, however, the way forward is sticking to the old vision he had when he mapped out his future.

“I want to do the same things I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I want a family, I want a graduate degree, and I want a house of my own. My goals are still the same.  I’m just a little more driven to accomplish them because I understand how easily situations can change.” –  Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Better than Superman

Retired Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jim Castaneda in the cycling competition at the 2012 Warrior Games. Although his tire blew out, he continued to push to the finish line. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

In Colorado Springs, an 11-year-old boy explains why he attended the 2012 Warrior Games.

“I came here to see my hero,” he said, chest puffed out. “Superman can dodge a bullet, but my dad can actually take one. He is better than Superman. He is a real hero.”

His father, 47-year-old retired Navy Petty Officer Jim Castaneda, may indeed be more powerful than a locomotive. The El Paso, Texas, native inspired everyone, including his son Jef, when he finished a 20 kilometer bicycle race with only one leg and one tire.

Wounded in combat three times, Castaneda survived multiple explosions that caused severe traumatic brain injury. In 2007, he survived a series of strokes that left him with significant paralysis. Today he can’t feel anything on the right side of his body.

Because of his injuries, he was racing a seated, recumbent bicycle, with his right arm and leg taped to the frame to keep them from getting injured. He would operate the cycle with one leg, one arm and one big superhero heart.

His wife and son cheered as he shot from the starting line—faster than a speeding bullet. It was the first time his family had ever seen Jim compete at the Warrior Games.

But it wasn’t long before Jim realized something was very wrong with his bike. After he rounded the first turn, an official approached on a motorcycle and pointed out that his left tire had gone completely flat.

“A lesser guy would have quit,” said his coach, retired Navy Master Chief Will Wilson. “But Jim doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

Castaneda waived off the official and put his cycle into the lowest gear possible. Each revolution took everything out of his left thigh. Each hill proved more and more difficult to crest. When his leg finally began to tremble, more officials rode up on motorcycles. They asked twice more if he would like to stop, and twice more he waived them off.

“I swear—at times, I wanted to quit,” said Castaneda. “I’ll be honest I wanted to quit. But every time I felt the urge, I thought of my teammates and I thought about my son. I wanted to prove to my son that we always finish what we start. We never quit.”

As he rounded the final turn, Castaneda was nearly unconscious—blacking out from exhaustion. His teammates ran onto the track cheering as they jogged beside him for the final 500 meters of the race. It seemed to take every bit of his superhero strength, but Castaneda felt he couldn’t stop until he made it across the finish line where his loving wife and admiring son were waiting.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Castaneda. “This was bigger than me. If I was to quit, then it would be OK for anyone—my son, the Navy, America—to quit. But it’s not OK. We do not quit.”

As he crossed the finish line the entire Warrior Games audience erupted in applause. The other competitors made their way to the finish line to shake the hand of this incredibly courageous athlete.

“He may not have feeling in much of his body,” said Wilson, “but I know where he does have feeling—that’s in his heart. He’s got the heart of a hero, and we all felt it beat that day.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

This Father’s Day, salute the superhero dad in your life while supporting the troops with a gift from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook.

The Warrior Games Experience

The 2012 Olympic Games are just months away.  Olympic hopefuls and returning medalists are beginning to appear in advertisements, television talk shows and on billboards across the country.  Their stories of triumph and dedication to the sport is what makes the games so inspiring.  This year USO employees Andrea & Sharee had the opportunity to attend the Warrior Games – an Olympic-style competition that celebrates the achievements and abilities of wounded, ill and injured service members through athletic competition.  Although these games may not be as widely known and recognized by the world, the athletes and the competitions are just as fierce.

Andrea and Sharee at the 2012 Warrior Games

This was Andrea’s first Warrior Games, and for her colleague Sharee Posey, her third.  With all the talk about London, they sat down to reflect on our own Olympic encounter and how the athletes, families and volunteers of the 2012 Warrior Games inspired them.

Sharee, what was your biggest take-away from the Warrior Games?

The fierce competitiveness that lives within these athletes is just one layer of what the Games are all about.  It’s more than the stadiums filled with chants of “Lets Go Army…lets go!” or the “Hoorahs!” of the Marines, it’s about warriors healing together.  Don’t get me wrong, the rivalries are intense but they will never outweigh the brotherhood and sisterhood these men and women share.  It is witnessed every year at the Games, when a Soldier stops in the middle of a race, giving up his chances of taking top spot, to encourage, and sometimes push, along a fellow competitor.  While winning is the goal, the military creed of never leave a man behind still applies.

My first experience with this was at the inaugural games, when Army athlete and cyclist Jonathon Hosley and Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Will Wilson both literally and figuratively pushed Sgt. Monica Southall to the finish line, neither racer finished in time to claim a medal but crossing the finish line, together, was reward enough for all three.  Later, I had the opportunity to speak with Hosley and asked him about giving up his chance of winning the race and he said, “If we had left her behind then none of us would have won.” It is that very spirit that drives these warriors to complete their mission, whatever it maybe.

That is so true!  I have been to so many athletic competitions where you could cut the tension with a knife- but with these rivals, the camaraderie and support for their competitors was amazing! Although we heard the frequent “Let’s go Army” or the intense Navy chants during swimming, at the end of the day, we always heard a “Go USA!”

And that truly is the heart of these games, support.  Whether it’s the challenger who gives up his chances of winning to help a fellow athlete cross the finish line, the spouse or caretaker who takes on the added challenges of training, the volunteer who spends the day passing out water and snacks, or organizations like the USO who partner with the U.S. Olympic Committee to sponsor the games, we are all there for one common goal, to support these amazing men and women and their families through their recovery.

And their amazing stories of triumph…these athletes have overcome visible or invisible wounds to not only survive, but thrive.  Their energy, enthusiasm and love for the sport is contagious!  I remember when we were at the gold medal game of wheelchair basketball.  It was Army versus the Marines and I didn’t have a favorite, but I found myself on the edge of my chair for every play!  The Army took home the gold that night, but you wouldn’t know it talking to any of the Marines, they were just as excited to be center court receiving their silver medals.

We did meet so many amazing people.  During the archery competition I spoke with a young Sailor who had been injured in Norfolk, Va., and suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). When I asked about the incident that caused his injuries he told me he doesn’t talk about it because talking about it makes him remember it more. And when I asked him his name he smiled at me and said, “Crash, that’s what everyone calls me now.”

Crash had just competed and while he wouldn’t talk about how he sustained his injuries, he was more than happy to talk about his love of archery, a sport he never played until he began training for the 2012 Warrior Games.

Archery is a release for him, it was something he can do to take his mind of his injuries, and he loves to compete and to be part of a team.

I hope we see Crash at next year’s games.  I look forward to returning in 2013 and cheering on these healing heroes.

Me too.  The games are a truly inspiring and unique experience and the athletes continue to amaze me year after year.

To see more photos from the 2012 Warrior Games check out this slideshow by the USO:

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And a Rivalry is Born

“A-R-M-Y might stand for Aren’t Ready to beat the Marines Yet,” explained an anonymous Team Marine fan at the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs on Tuesday.

After a narrow Marine victory over Army in the first seated volleyball match, Marine Corps pride filled the room from wall to wall.

We all know about the rivalry between the two services, but the fan-induced Red vs. Black inferno that lit up the opening match was white hot.

The gym was packed with what seemed to be every fan and family member at the Games. Hundreds of red and black t-shirts filled the bleachers from wall to wall—sharply separated, of course—to witness what was both a first day rematch from the previous year and a tiebreaker to settle a medal stalemate from earlier in the day.

Team Army and Team Marine left the windy cycling course tied with six medals each. Day one bragging rights would surely go to the winner of this volleyball match.

Led by flag-waving, face-painted motivators, each team’s fans erupted in waves of grunts and cheers to egg on their side.  When the Marine crowd would chant, “U-S-M-C,” Army fans would interrupt after “U-S-“ and overpower with, “ARMY!”

By the end of the match, the rivalry had escalated to the point that each team was attempting to encroach into the other’s section with their flag.  After a grueling battle, perhaps one of the closest in Warrior Games volleyball history, the Marines came out on top.

“It was a nail-biter, especially there at the end,” said Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson, Director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2), who sat front-and-center to lead the Army cheering section. “I was sure we would beat the Marines on day one, but this thing is far from over.”

Each team competes for three nights before playing for medals. The gold/silver medal game is scheduled for Friday night, May 4.

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For more information, medal updates and stories about some of the athletes competing in this year’s games, follow Warrior Games and the USO on Facebook. And see more images on our Warrior Games Flickr set. – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Warrior Spirit Revealed on First Day of Games

Despite his tire blowing out, Retired Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jim Castaneda pushed his way to the finish line

The Warrior Games kicked off Tuesday with five cycling events here at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Both the Army and Marine teams finished with six medals. Army with two gold, one silver and three bronze, and the Marines with two gold, three silver and one bronze.

But the day was clearly not about medals. It was about teamwork and the warrior spirit, prominently demonstrated by the sea services after a couple of their athletes encountered mechanical woes.

After the first run of the course, Retired Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jim Castaneda had his left tire blow out on his recumbent bicycle.

With miles left to go, Castaneda kept on pedaling and pushed to the finish line, with his coach and teammates cheering him on.  He could have stopped when the tire blew, but says he wanted to show his son, “We don’t quit.”

For his determination to succeed, Castaneda was selected as “Athlete of the Day” by the U.S. Paralympics Committee and is profiled on their website.

Earlier, a cable snapped on another athlete’s bike, and the Navy/Coast Guard team couldn’t fix it.

“We didn’t have the parts, we didn’t have a cable, and we didn’t have a mechanic there,” said Master Chief Will Wilson, the team’s cycling coach.  “So we rolled down to the Marine Corps cadre and without hesitation they jumped on it, got the parts, fixed the bike and got the kid in the race.”

“That says it all,” said Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Michael Barrett to the Commandant of the Marine Corps after hearing what happened. “We’re doing it right.”

“Those [medals] you see hanging from the table over there, that’s not Warrior Games,” said Wilson. “What just happened down there, fixing that bike—that’s Warrior Games.”

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– Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

What’s in a Name?


James Nathaniel Richards

A name is something that you get from your Mom and Dad.

It is something you hear when your teacher calls on you. You hear it when your brothers or sister want help with a chore or they want you to do something. You definitely hear it when you did something that was not good.

“James Nathaniel Richards!!”

You don’t realize how important it is till you miss hearing someone call it. My Dad has been deployed for almost a month. I would really like to hear him.

My sister, Bella, and I take turns getting the mail.

You are thinking, “no big deal,” but we live almost a mile from our mailbox. It is up and down a big hill, so when I went to the mail box and opened it up I was really excited.

There it was: My name!

It was on a big package letter. My excitement went up to Jupiter. Bella and I opened it up.

Wow, it was a book! I love to read. It was a birthday book which was good because it was Bella’s birthday and my Mom’s. The best part was inside the package was a disk with my Dad reading the book. Well, actually a couple of books.

He said my name!!

It sounded really good. You don’t know how important your name is till someone you miss says it! He read the stories before he left and United Through Reading® sent them to us. I think I am going to ask Ms. Diane [from the USO] if I can read my Dad some stories. It is a program they have for parents and kids so you can stay n touch and hear your name!

You can get the info at your USO or online.  I can’t believe we didn’t do this all the other times he was on deployment. Maybe I can read him the newspaper with all the Super Bowl news, or a book.

My mom got me the one about the boy whose Dad died in 9/11, where he left his kid a message. Or maybe I could read him an easy book so Bella could help. I don’t think it will matter what I read to him. I think that he probably be happy to hear me say his name.

So what is in a name? I guess it depends on who says it and how much you hear them say it.

So go say my name Dad!

Story written by Nate-the-Great—A Military Brat
a 9-year-old blogger whose father is in the Navy.  Follow, like and share Nate’s blog about life as a military brat by navigating to United Through Reading’s Military Program can be found at more than 130 Command locations worldwide and more than 70 USO host locations. — Edited by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer.


Nine-year-old USO volunteer Nathan Richards gets an autograph from Joe Townsend, a British Royal Marine after a track and field medal ceremony where Townsend took Gold in the 100m. Richards' mother, Lorraine, is one of dozens of volunteers from USO San Diego who supported the 2012 Marine Corps Trials in February.