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Some wounded vets shine on 'Alive Day,' others wear black

One year to the day after Lt. Brad Snyder lost his vision to a bomb explosion in Afghanistan, he swam ferociously across a pool. Then he stood atop a podium at the London Paralympics, wore gold around his neck and beamed to the national anthem, savoring the moment but seeing none of it. 

Exactly eight years after Tammy Duckworth lost her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, she met the Army medic who revived her inside a mangled helicopter. Amid that reunion, she had an extra reason to smile: Six days before, Duckworth had won a seat in the U.S. Congress.

During the otherwise dark anniversaries of their devastating combat injuries, both veterans chose to cherish the warm light of survival on what has come to be known, throughout the military, as “Alive Day.”

Their numbers are growing more slowly though still rising: Seventy American service members were wounded in Afghanistan during December, according to new Department of Defense figures. That made 2012 the third-bloodiest year of that war in terms of the tally of U.S. troops hurt in action — 2,951.

“Choice — that word means a lot here,” said Snyder, 28, a former Navy bomb-disposal expert. “‘Choice’ puts everything on a level playing field. Each of us faces a plethora of daily choices — when to get up, what to eat for breakfast, what to say to your family before leaving for work. You can choose to be positive. Or you can choose to be a victim.

“You can choose to move forward with grace. Or you can choose to succumb to negativity.”

How Snyder capped his initial Alive Day made some people cry, including his mother who watched from poolside. It made thousands more cheer at London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre. Twelve months after stepping on an IED, he dove blindly into water for the 400-meter freestyle Paralympics final. He won by nearly six seconds — an eternity in competitive racing.

“Every (survivor of severe combat wounds) flirts potentially with a much more dismal outcome,” said Snyder, one of more than 50,000 U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. “To be in a situation where you can still do something great, that’s the way I look at Alive Day.”

But the concept isn’t an easy mental fit for every disabled veteran, admitted Snyder, who lives in Baltimore and who will remain a Naval officer for a while longer. During a recent public-speaking event, he chatted with former service members and discovered that “some of them just don’t even acknowledge Alive Day exists. Some look at this as a day when they only wear black, mope around and think about how miserable they want to be.”

The notion of trying to transform the anniversary of a nearly-fatal battle injury into an annual day of triumph was hatched before the Vietnam War, said Dr. Sydney Savion, a retired military officer, applied behavioral scientist and author of “Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture.” She is based in Texas.

Alive Day, Savion said, is “on some level, mind over matter." But she believes the concept serves as an effective mental-health salve and can be part of a path to lasting recovery.

“One of the most important things a veteran can learn to do in life is to reframe negative events that have happened to them. This is not to deny the close escape from death or the permanent wounds, sanitize them or hide them,” Savion said. “Instead, look at them like creating a piece of art. Michaelangelo once said, ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.’ Even the ugliest events, when looked at with fresh eyes, (can carry) newfound meaning, opportunities and answers.”

Many veterans try, through reunions, phone calls, emails and letters, to retain the tight camaraderie they formed with their unit buddies. Alive Day, Savion added, offers another way “to rekindle that connection.” 

“If things are going to turn out well for any veteran, one thing (that) is paramount is redefining who one is and repurposing one’s life,” she said. “One must mentally and emotionally surrender the old situation and experiment with new ways of being, doing, (and) thinking.”

Duckworth, a former Army chopper pilot, this week took that advice to Capitol Hill. In her second bid for Congress, she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 6, serving the suburbs north of Chicago. She was sworn in Thursday.

The Monday after her election victory — her most recent Alive Day — Duckworth met the man who pulled her back to consciousness after she and her co-pilot managed to land their damaged, smoking Black Hawk helicopter in 2004.

“I don’t remember being in the ER. I just met the flight medic who revived me in the helicopter. We just spent Alive Day together,” Duckworth told NBC News in a recent interview. “He said, ‘You looked up at me. You were completely calm.’ ”

Duckworth often spends her Alive Day with the five men who were aboard the chopper with her in 2004 as they skimmed treetops in Iraq at about 135 miles per hour. The group has sometimes gathered in St. Louis. She sees that anniversary, she said, as a “celebration” — and a moment when she can show appreciation to those who helped save her life.

But Alive Day also provides veterans with a unique bond, she added. After a photo shoot of Congressional freshmen snapped last November, Duckworth met a new lawmaker from California, Paul Cook, who was wounded in Vietnam.

“There’s a subset of us who have seen combat action,” Duckworth said. “That’s the reason I was able to talk to this man. He started talking about walking into a trip wire in Vietnam and wanted to know what hit me, what that was like.’ When you’ve actually not just been deployed, when you’ve both seen combat action, you have this common place.”

Duckworth’s 2013 Alive Day likely will be spent in the House of Representatives. It falls on a Tuesday.

Snyder’s 2013 Alive Day comes on a Saturday. He has resolved to “raise the bar” on the feat he pulled off last Sept. 7. But he knows that will not be easy.

“I want to do something that’s more outstanding or more ridiculous,” Snyder said. “Maybe I’ll climb a mountain or jump out of an aircraft. We’ll see. Certainly, it will be a day about moving forward. I’ll try to make the most of the fact that I’m still here. I’ll enjoy life to its fullest. That’s something I try to do every day — but especially on that day.”

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