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On Veterans Day, the greatest wound for many is loss of purpose

Capt. Kyle Snook, a third-generation soldier, only wanted to be a platoon leader – a dream shattered by a roadside bomb in Kandahar. Now, he's trying to find meaning after the Army.

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Growing up, Snook gravitated toward soccer and hockey – and not so he could practice his goal celebrations. Even then, he wanted to be a leader. After his high school hockey team put in a particularly dreadful period during his junior year, Snook noticed that the coach, captain, and seniors weren't offering any encouragement. So he did.

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“Leadership just seemed to come naturally for him,” Snook’s father, Scott, says.

As an officer in the Army, motivating a team was Snook’s full-time job. Stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., he took charge of a heavy weapons platoon of 24 men, and dove head first into his leadership role – ensuring that anything he asked soldiers to do, he did along side them. He got to know his soldiers’ favorite movies and bands, learned their wives’ and girlfriends’ names, and offered a listening ear when needed.

When his unit deployed in May 2010, Snook felt the gravity of his responsibility. They’d been told that the southern Afghanistan was rife with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“There was this feeling that even if a bullet hit you, you’d at least have some time to consider your life and that it might be ending,” says Snook. “But dealing with IEDs was so mentally taxing because there wouldn’t be a period to consider anything. After my next step, I might just be gone.”

But Snook did have days to consider that one step. In transit from Afghanistan to Germany, and finally back to Fort Campbell, Snook says, “I realized that I was being removed from these [soldiers] that I had spent everyday with for over a year. I knew these men were going to stay in the most dangerous place in the world, and I wasn’t going to be there to help them anymore.”

When the Army misdiagnosed his injury, he almost missed the narrow window of opportunity to get the surgery necessary to save his foot. And with his unit still in combat, Snook felt isolated as he underwent surgery and intense physical therapy.

“I felt like I’d been removed from my family and never returned,” he says.

During 18 long months in recovery, Snook regained the ability to walk. He also met with an occupational therapist to relearn how to add and subtract—basic skills he lost as a result of his traumatic brain injury. And even as his physical health improved, Snook experienced psychological symptoms like paranoia, insomnia, and depression, and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Last year, the Army started a medical review process to determine whether Snook was still fit for duty. It became increasingly clear that his time as a leader in the Army was over.

If anything has changed for the better since his accident, Snook says, it’s his relationships with his family. Though his grandfather and father both served in combat, it was something they’d never spoken about openly together until he returned from Afghanistan. Side by side, as they were driving back from his surgery, Snook’s father finally shared his own story: he was wounded in 1983 in the invasion of Grenada. Both son and father earned Purple Heart medals for their time in service.

This semester, Snook enrolled at Harvard Business School. Though he can’t participate in intramural soccer or hockey, Snook hopes the two-year program will give him time to figure out his next steps. He sees a counselor regularly, continues physical therapy, and in his spare time, maintains a blog where he recounts stories from his deployment and recovery. He hopes it will help people understand his experience—but he doesn’t expect it to make the transition easier.

As Snook adjusts to his new way of life, his older brother, Capt. Sean Snook, is training to be a special forces officer; his younger sister, 2nd Lt. Megan Snook, is preparing to deploy; and his younger brother, Robert, will graduate from West Point in 2014.

“It’s been a struggle to adapt from the military to the civilian world,” says Snook. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find an organization that allowed me to feel a part of something bigger than myself as much as the Army has. But I hope I can find something.”


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