I thought I was dead.
When the blast first happened, I could still actually see out of my left eye, and I remember looking down at my body and noticing that both my legs and both my arms were still intact. I thought that meant that I was dead. I really assumed I had passed over and was in purgatory waiting for what was next.
As an explosives specialist in a Navy SEAL unit, I accepted the fact that I could die every time I went on patrol. I expected to die, actually. Before I left for a patrol, I would mentally say goodbye to everything and make sure my bed was made.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that made serving in the Navy so appealing to me. The truth is that it was probably a confluence of a few factors. Military service was pretty much wired into my DNA. Both of my grandfathers served in the Navy in World War II, so it was an important part of my upbringing. Growing up, you would find me playing with G.I. Joes while watching Top Gun. I was unconsciously aware that I wanted this life from a very young age.
It all kind of clicked my sophomore year of high school when my Uncle, who served in the Navy at the time, took me to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and gave me a tour. It truly was love at first sight. I walked the campus and was completely in awe of the history and the tradition I was surrounded by. It was a destination for the country’s best and brightest, so I made it my life’s mission to one day go to school there. Two years later, I was admitted.
When I arrived in Annapolis, I had to decide more specifically how I wanted to create a career in the military. Eventually, I was drawn to the explosive ordnance disposal community. I found taking apart bombs fascinating, almost like a high stakes academic challenge. It was something that just made sense to me and as I pursued it I felt like I was fulfilling my destiny.
When I graduated from The Academy, I landed my dream job as an explosives specialist for a SEAL team. I essentially functioned as a SEAL in a SEAL platoon, but my expertise was in explosives rather than assault operations.
On the 7th of September, 2011, I was on a joint U.S./Afghan patrol — half Navy SEALs, half Afghan Special Forces. We were clearing an area looking for Taliban fighters and weapons. My job was to protect our assault team from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) buried in the ground and decide how to dispose of enemy weapons we discovered. In our mission planning, I would consult images that showed us all of the IED activity in the area — we’d be walking around and the map would often look like chicken pox.
In areas like this, we’d have an explosives specialist like myself move through the area with a metal detector until it was cleared while everyone else followed behind. My partner, the other specialist, was clearing a path that morning when two of the Afghan Special Forces veered off course and landed on an IED, killing both of them.
Everything was pretty chaotic, but my job at that point, not knowing their immediate status, was to get them on a helicopter so they could go to a hospital. In the ensuing effort to render aid to these men, I stepped on a secondary device located about five meters from the original blast site. The blast occurred right in front of me, which is the only reason I’m still here today. Had the blast been below me, I would be gone. I was 18 inches away from certain death.
Even though I was able to walk away, I took the brunt of the damage to my face. I spent over 100 hours in surgery and ultimately came out completely fine, except for my eyes. I was told that I would be completely blind for the rest of my life.
In my line of work, I thought there was always a chance that I could lose a leg. In every blast incident that I had seen, the men closest to the explosion lost at least one leg. I’d mentally prepared myself for death or amputation, but I never thought I’d become blind.
When I got the prognosis that I would never be able to see again, I latched onto idea that I was thankful to be alive. I was thankful to still have my limbs. I was thankful to still be here with my family. I still had the opportunity to experience a long and happy life, I would just need to adjust to the idea that it would be a different life than I’d imagined. I made the decision to be thankful and optimistic, and it improved my quality of life at that time.
I spent three weeks at Walter Reed hospital in Maryland in intensive care. Once most of the wounds had healed, I was moved to Tampa’s Veterans Hospital. I was there for about five more weeks before I was finally allowed to go home during weekends.
While I was in the hospital, there were so many people caring for me and worrying about me all the time. Everyone around me was feeling so much pain over my situation, and honestly, I hated it.
I went from being a person capable of anything — I was trained to shoot military-grade assault weapons, jump out of aircraft and take apart bombs — to someone completely dependent upon others. I lived my previous life like I was invincible. Now my biggest challenge in life would be discovering what I could still do.
All I wanted to do was prove to everybody that I was going to be fine. I just wanted my life to get back to normal.
I needed a vehicle to show everyone in my life that I was still strong, so I turned to swimming. I did some of my rehab where I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and that community knew me as a swimmer. I competed from the age of 11 all the way through college, where I swam against NCAA competition for the Midshipmen. About eight weeks after my surgery, I was offered the opportunity to hop in the pool for the first time since losing my sight, and I decided to go for it. Honestly, after weeks of having everyone around me concerned about my future, I was so excited to show off what I was capable of doing.
The feeling of swimming — the stroke, the pace, the strategy and most of all, the mental image — sometimes make me forget that I’m blind. I have a very vivid image in my mind of what the pool around me looks like, and I’ll begin to swim like I used to. This inevitably results in me smacking into the lane line, which results in cuts and bruises. And I crash — a lot.
I’ve adapted my stroke to where I keep my hands very low so I can feel for the lane lines. Normally, if I find it with my hands on my outstroke, I can bend my body and go back to the middle of the lane without crashing. But when I get going and my adrenaline is high, I’m not blind anymore. I completely lose myself in the moment.
My first race was in February of 2012, just five months after I lost my vision. I jumped in the pool and felt like I had a good swim, and when I emerged I was told that I had recorded the fifth-fastest time in the world among active blind athletes. I assumed they were looking at the wrong list. I thought I might be the fifth-fastest swimmer amongst 28-year-olds from St. Petersberg named Brad. But fifth in the world? It was unbelievable for a number of reasons. I had never really experienced success on that level before. I’d won only one race when I was in college and while I considered myself a good athlete, the idea of being a world-ranked swimmer was difficult to fathom.
It took a week to really figure out what this meant for my life and where I could take it. As luck would so have it, it was a Paralympic year, so the possibility emerged of representing the United States at the Paralympics. For the first time in a long while, I was overwhelmed in a positive way.
My next race was at the Paralympic trials to make the national team, and I had two first-place finishes and one third-place finish. And just like that, I found out I would be going to London to represent the United States. In those months when I first started swimming again, the level of excitement just kept rising. The higher the stakes, the more exciting it got. Not only could I do this, I was one of the best in the world. That feeling of touching the wall and hearing familiar cheers telling me I won the race was almost intoxicating. Every time I touched the water it felt magical.
In London, my success in the pool continued as I won three medals, including a gold medal on the one-year anniversary of the explosion that cost me my vision. Standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem play will forever be one of the proudest moments of my life.
Everything moved so fast during that year that I didn’t have time to sit back and truly reflect on what had happened to me in Afghanistan. I was entirely focused on chasing after that feeling of excitement and anticipation. For the first time in my life, I was considered an elite athlete, and it all happened because of something tragic. That’s a lot to reconcile.
It really wasn’t until the December after the Paralympics, that I really sat back and said Wow. I stumbled into so many cool and exciting opportunities — from traveling around the world to meeting the president — that my family started calling me Forrest Gump. A lot of the time it felt like I was watching alongside them, witnessing the journey rather than experiencing it. I couldn’t believe what was happening, either.
It felt like I had taken out a loan on the time needed to adapt to my new life, and it was the next two years that I spent paying it back as I truly learned how to function as a blind person. It’s very easy to say that you made a decision not to let something bring you down, but the reality is much more complicated.
It’s somewhat easy to paint my story as one about someone who bounced back from something tragic, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I was always on a certain path, and when blindness struck, I adapted and continued, focused forward in a singular direction.
In that time, I did my best to not pay attention to what I call “The Delta,” which is the difference between what I used to be able to do and what I can do now.
My initial frustrations with blindness were very simple things. Like for example, I really struggled to get the right amount of toothpaste on the end of my toothbrush. A task that I had mindlessly performed my entire life now served as a huge challenge. I never considered that I used my eyes to measure how much toothpaste comes out of the tube, but having that ability taken away was one of many demoralizing moments. Just walking down the hallway can be a frustrating, bumping into walls and smacking my head on cupboards. But there are also those moments when I just truly feel trapped.
I have a guide dog named Gizzy, and in the fall of 2013, I took her to a dog park. It was the first very cold day of the year, but I really wanted to take her out, so I was the only person at the park. On rare occasion, my dog will sometimes leave and not come back to me. It’s not because she’s being a bad dog, it’s because she thinks its a game. On that cold day, my dog decided to play a game and left without coming back. As a result, I was stuck in the intense cold for a long time with no idea what to do. I felt completely alone.
That was really a true low moment for me because it was the first time I felt truly and utterly enclosed in this world of blindness. I’d not had my sight for more than two years, but I’d never experienced that feeling before. The closest thing I could compare it to is claustrophobia. It’s like being in a box you can’t escape from, and then realizing you’ll never escape.
This wasn’t about dealing with the short-term frustration associated with banging my head on something, it was about experiencing the deep loss of my independence. Those are the moments that every newly blind person experiences at some point, but for two years, I had avoided.
Over time, though, I’ve learned that when you allow your mind to be consumed by The Delta, and you get so angry over what you can no longer do, life becomes almost unlivable. So I’ve had to train myself to accept the reality of my situation and take more ownership over what I can control. And because of this, my attachment to the swimming pool and competition has only grown.
The first year was tough, but the second year was a little better, and over time you just try to build up more skills and learn more tricks to make life easier.
Since I stood on that podium in London, I’ve gone through the process of truly learning to accept my blindness and be at peace with it. Because of that, I particularly look forward to swimming in this next Paralympics in 2016. When I get into that pool in Rio, I will do so with a new outlook and focused goal. I can see it all so clearly.