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.

Courtesy Snook family
This Snook family photo shows (from r. to l.) Capt. Kyle Snook, 2nd Lt. Megan Snook, retired Col. Scott Snook, Jessica Snook, retired Col. Kathleen Snook, Capt. Sean Snook, and Robert Snook.

For Capt. Kyle Snook, military service runs in the family.

His grandfather, retired Col. Robert Gerard, served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Snook’s parents, retired Cols. Kathleen and Scott Snook, were both members of West Point’s class of 1980, where his mother was among the first graduating class of women. And three of his four siblings have attended the US Military Academy – including an older brother who is training to be a special forces officer.

But on this day, the Afghanistan war veteran is sitting on a bench in Boston, wearing a different kind of uniform: a Harvard Business School cap, zip-up sweatshirt, and jeans. Two years ago, he stepped on a roadside bomb in Kandahar, ending his Army career.

Now, he’s hoping his two years at Harvard are enough to help him rebuild a new life. After all, for someone who grew up dreaming only of being a platoon leader, life after the Army was never a part of the plan.

On Veteran’s Day, America pauses to honor the selflessness and sacrifice of those who have served. As a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the mental impact of that service has become clearer. For the first time, the military suicide rate is higher than that for civilians, forcing the Pentagon to reshape how it cares for those affected by the stress and trauma of fighting a war without boundaries.

For Mr. Snook, doctors say the bomb blast that injured his foot will prevent him from ever running again. But the mental toll of having to leave the only job he ever wanted is, in many ways, just as acute. In that way, he represents the thousands of veterans for whom today – like many other days – is simply another chance to discover new meaning in a life dramatically changed by the bonds of war and brotherhood.

“For years, I woke up everyday because I knew there were 30 guys waiting for me at work, and we were trying to get ready to fight a uniform-less, hiding enemy,” Snook says. “I felt such deep purpose in my life, and now I don’t feel any purpose at all.”

It was Sept. 26, 2010, that the course of his life changed. As a part of President Obama’s troop surge to southern Afghanistan, Snook’s platoon was tasked with clearing an area where Taliban were operating.

That Sunday was to be the beginning of a 10-day mission, but within the first few hours, his platoon came under attack. Amid the confusion, while dodging heavy fire, he sprinted toward a wall to take cover. When he planted his right foot behind the wall, Snook says he felt the ground compress. The explosion launched him nearly 15 feet in the air, shattered his right foot and heel, and scattered shrapnel throughout his right leg.

Ahead lay 18 months of therapy – both physical and mental – to get him to where he is today, a student at one of the most prestigious business colleges in the country. But behind lay a life’s purpose blown apart amid the shrapnel. 

Kathleen Snook says she never wanted any of her sons or daughters to feel pressured to go to West Point. But Kyle was different. “Kyle was the only one that indicated all along that he wanted to be in the Army,” she says.

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.

“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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