ALLENTOWN, PA. — Lt. Brad Snyder holds the acoustic guitar in his arms for the first time, strumming a few random chords then moving into a sampling of Neil Young.
The sounds take him back to the nights when he was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and sat around a fire teaching fellow servicemen songs like Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance."
But there was a time when the 28-year-old Florida native and Baltimore resident wasn't sure if he would be able to play the guitar again.
Snyder was left blind 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 Nazareth headquarters.
He played confidently in front 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 with visual markers denoting different frets, the so-called "Purple Heart guitar" has indentations on the back of its barrel. The tactile markers will allow Snyder, who received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, to transition smoothly along the fingerboard, placing his hands 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 ex filtrate a unit and stepped on an improvised explosive devise. He woke up days later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., unable to see. Though doctors were initially unsure if Snyder would regain his vision, they eventually determined he would 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, who lives Bethlehem and 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, that he would meet Aaron VanWhy, the man who designed it, and get a private museum tour from Martin 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 start-up software company in Baltimore. Over the summer, he competed in the paralympic games in London, winning two gold medals in swimming.
Even though he's continued to play the guitar, it's been a struggle to find a full-proof method for placing his hands on fret markers that he can't see.
Now, Snyder plans play along with his younger brother, Russell, and won't worry about not being able to see where his fingers are. 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."
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