Blinded Naval officer gets custom Martin guitar

Naval Academy graduate Brad Snyder strums a custom Martin Guitar presented to him inside the guitar maker's headquarters. Snyder was blinded by a roadside bomb in September 2011 while serving with the Navy in Afghanistan.
Naval Academy graduate Brad Snyder strums a custom Martin Guitar presented to him inside the guitar maker's headquarters. Snyder was blinded by a roadside bomb in September 2011 while serving with the Navy in Afghanistan. (HARRY FISHER, THE MORNING CALL)

Navy Lt. Brad Snyder holds the acoustic guitar in his arms for the first time, strums a few chords, then moves into a sampling of Neil Young.

The sounds take the Naval Academy graduate back to the nights when he was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and sat around a fire teaching fellow servicemen songs such as Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

But there was a time when the 28-year-old Baltimore man wasn't sure if he would be able to play the guitar again.

Snyder was blinded in September 2011 when he stepped on a bomb during a mission in Afghanistan. His friends raised more than $2,000 and worked with C.F. Martin & Co. to create a one-of-a-kind guitar.

Snyder received the instrument Monday at the company's Pennsylvania headquarters.

He played confidently in front of his brother and a friend, his fingers manipulating the strings of the custom-made guitar emblazoned with a Purple Heart medal and the insignia for a Navy bomb disposal officer.

"Holy cow," Snyder said."This is so cool."

Unlike a typical guitar, which uses small dots to help the player count the frets, the so-called Purple Heart guitar has indentations on the back of its neck. The tactile markers allow Snyder, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, to navigate the fretboard and place his fingers in the proper location.

Snyder never took guitar lessons and couldn't read music but was starting to teach himself the guitar before deployment. He spent six years in the Navy, including deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Playing the guitar was a way to bond with others in his unit, and Snyder spent hours teaching songs like Oasis' "Wonderwall," which some men hoped to play to impress their girlfriends when they got home.

The lessons came to an end when Snyder was trying to exfiltrate a unit and stepped on an improvised explosive devise. He woke up days later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, unable to see. Though doctors were initially unsure if Snyder would regain his vision, they eventually determined he will be permanently blind.

Snyder tried to stay optimistic and sent friends a photo of himself holding a small Martin travel guitar to show that he was recovering. He mentioned the idea of someday getting a Braille-like guitar to John Keirle, a friend he met during special operations training.

That idea stuck with Keirle, whose father-in-law works at Martin. He talked to Martin staff and began a fundraising campaign to pay for the custom job through a message on Facebook. Soon, he had so many donations he had to cancel people's checks.

"That's a testament to your character," he told Snyder.

Keirle kept the guitar a secret for months but another friend accidentally told Snyder he was getting one. Though the surprise was foiled, Snyder still had no idea his gift would be custom-made by Martin — maker of professional-quality acoustic guitars played by world-class musicians — that he would meet Aaron VanWhy, the man who designed it, and get a private museum tour from Martin's chairman, Chris Martin.

"I'm actually kind of shaken," Snyder said Monday. "I really appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."

Snyder, whose scars from his injuries are slightly noticeable behind his glasses, is in the process of retiring from the Navy. He works at a startup software company in Baltimore.

A swimmer, Snyder won two gold medals and a silver last summer at the Paralympic Games in London. He was selected to carry the American flag for the U.S. team during the closing ceremonies.

He also competed in the 2012 Warrior Games, a competition for wounded, ill and injured service members in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Though he's continued to play the guitar, it's been a struggle to find a full-proof method for placing his fingers on frets that he can't see.

Now, Snyder plans to play along with his younger brother, Russell. The music helps return a sense of normalcy to his life, he said.

"It gives me something that I used to be able to do well." Snyder said. "And now I still can."