Connections are key: Quest planning leads to epiphany for local special forces veteran

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Once an adventure-fueled special forces soldier, always one, so when former special forces medic Dr. Thad Snyder first heard about pack rafting, “it just seemed like something that reminded me of special forces,” the Mountain Home VA Medical Center physician told News Channel 11. 

Never mind that he was 48, albeit in good shape — Snyder got intrigued enough that by early this year he was planning out a 160-mile Alaska wilderness trip for summer 2022. It would involve carrying a lightweight pack that included a raft, navigating both waterways and trails.

He’d hiked across Asia following an initial six-year Army stint, but that was almost 25 years ago.

At his age and with no experience, Snyder — with some help from his wife — realized going it alone might not be the wisest option. 

“Of course, the first person I thought of was one of my fellow teammates that I went through the Special Forces course with,” Snyder said.

Dr. Thad Snyder

That teammate agreed right off the bat, to Snyder’s surprise. So he kept asking and gathered a handful of special forces medics that he had gone through training with during 9/11.

As he began speaking to people he hadn’t had much communication with for up to two decades or more, Snyder realized something: Bonds with his fellow veterans and the support they can produce are more important than conquering a physical challenge.

“I was really struck by having that network,” Snyder said. “And that sense of reconnecting with people that you haven’t talked to in a long time, that you still have this deep affinity towards.” 

As the connections were occurring, though, another relationship was severed when Snyder’s uncle, a physician, took his own life. He thinks the stressors of the pandemic “collided together” with pathology and family history to overwhelm his uncle.

That, and the fact that he’s lost two cousins to suicide, one 22 and one only 12, turned Snyder’s thoughts toward whether the adventure he was planning could be part of a deeper purpose.

“It just sort of struck me that during this time frame with the pandemic and people are feeling more isolated, that this is kind of what we need more of. We need more people reaching out to those people you care about and just connecting, and maybe doing something, whatever that is.”

We can help each other

 Snyder began medic training in 2000 and was in clinical rotations at Fort Campbell, Ky. on 9/11. That changed life drastically for him and the vast majority of his fellow trainees as they went off to war. Some stayed in longer than he did and the impacts can’t be understated, Snyder said.

He said as the friends have reconnected in a very different stage of their lives, real issues have been shared. 

Then Army special forces medic Thad Snyder examines a child while running a clinic outside Kabul, Afghanistan.

“What does 20 years of combat do? Some of these people have been in combat for almost 20 years, an unprecedented history.” 

He said some of his friends have thought about processing that reality and others have not. 

“But as we talk, it’s evident to me that together we’re able to see some of the things and I’m able to say, ‘yeah, that’s something that you might want to look at.’ I’ve encouraged a couple of them actually to use VA resources that otherwise I don’t think would.” 

Snyder smiled as he described one result. 

“Before this interview, a friend of mine had just set up with the VA and was expecting a call to get connected to it. I encourage every vet to know the resources and benefits that you’ve earned and to take advantage of those because they’re there.” 

Snyder said those resources are vast, including more than 250 mental health providers available through Mountain Home.

He has nothing but praise for what he called “lots of excellent organizations doing really good work for mental health, for suicide prevention.” 

But professional clinicians and an official support structure don’t automatically draw veterans who are struggling with mental health with some sort of irresistible gravitational pull.

“There’s lots of excellent organizations doing really good work for mental health, for suicide prevention. And I think at times individuals feel that they’re not qualified to make a difference. And what I would say to that is that every individual has the ability if there’s someone they care about to make an impact on them, be that a veteran, be it not.

“As we get more divided, as we have more isolation, that gets further and further away.” 

More “quest” than project

Other than continuing to plan the adventure and seeing the personal growth that’s bringing, Snyder said he’s not exactly sure what type of formal “accomplishments” his recent experiences will yield.

The vertical white line in the center of this image shows the approximate route Snyder and his fellow former medics plan to take next summer.

They’ve caused him to seek out information about mental health and suicide. They’ve also “made me want to be more of an advocate as well to normalize struggles so that we don’t – we try to avoid those crises,” he said.

Snyder tried to start an Instagram page – “it’s not something that’s natural – I’m 48.” 

It was called “Tribe to Tribe” and was aimed toward veterans and frontline health professionals. 

“I see a correlation between these two groups, specifically now,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that they’re dealing with throughout this whole pandemic, ICU nurses in particular, and it’s going to take a lot of time to unpack that.” 

Snyder encouraged anyone who wants to deepen connections so they can help others to extend their circles of interaction. And to be ready to listen.

“When you’re asking ‘how was your day?’, actually mean those words. I think that’s the hard thing. We got caught up in the busy routine of life.” 

Just knowing they’re listened to can mean a lot to people who are having a bad day or a bad month, Snyder said.

“Then if something becomes out of your expertise, you can look at that person and say “I might not know the answers but together we can do this,’ and I think that’s the key.” 

He and his friends may turn around in the cold boglands southeast of Cantwell or they may make their 20 miles a day and reach Glacier View. But without having taken the first step, Snyder already knows his quest has brought him more growth and satisfaction than he ever expected

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