Special Forces: NSOF Executive Director Suzanna Fisher and Director Adam Fleck.
Photo by David Uhrin
“I transformed. I had to accept a new set of circumstances, and resolve to thrive anyway,” writes Brad Snyder in his inspiring book A Fire in My Eyes, which chronicles his journey from being permanently blinded by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in 2011 to becoming a gold-medal winning Paralympian in swimming just a year later. “That is what ‘resilience’ means to me. It is the resolution to thrive. ‘Don’t give up the ship.’”
Yet, finding the strength to be resilient can seem like an unsurmountable challenge for those who have been exposed to the kinds of things Snyder experienced as a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician (EOD). The mission of the Virginia Beach-based Navy Special Operations Foundation (NSOF) is to provide tailored support for service members like Synder, who was stationed locally at the time of his accident and now serves as Vice Chairman of NSOF’s board.
NSOF was founded in 2018 to serve EODs and Navy Divers and their families. These are the military men and women best known for dismantling bombs and executing dangerous and delicate underwater missions. This unique population often has needs that are not readily met by active duty and veterans benefits or through other nonprofits, particularly if service members are not attached to a specific military command such as a SEAL team. Their highly specialized skills and unique sacrifices are also often misunderstood or unknown to the general public.
If U.S. Special Forces as a whole are our nation’s “quiet professionals,” as they are often dubbed, EODs and Navy Divers are our “quietest professionals,” says NSOF Executive Director Suzanna Fisher, who is the spouse of an active duty EOD. “There is this huge issue with identity. You’re going through all the struggles that you have gone through just transitioning into the civilian sector, which is hard enough. You’ve done all these incredible, amazing things, and no one knows who you are.”
Getting the word out is a key part of NSOF’s mission, which is defined by four overarching pillars of support that include “Warrior Care,” “Community Presence,” “Youth Programs” and “Transition Services.” These pillars cover a broad range of needs for service members and their families. Whether they are struggling financially, looking for assistance finding a new job, dealing with chronic medical or mental health conditions, or grieving the loss of a comrade in arms, NSOF can help directly or connect them to appropriate resources.
One retired Navy EOD named Aaron (full name withheld at interviewee's request) became a recipient of NSOF’s services when his wife reached out to the organization in a state of desperation after Aaron found himself perpetually disoriented, depressed and unable to hold a job. He was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI, or traumatic brain injury, a common ailment among veterans who have been repeatedly exposed to blasts along with the overall traumas of war.
NSOF was able to help him obtain a brain scan and undergo a series of costly treatments typically not covered by Tricare or VA benefits. Those treatments included an intensive month-long series of sessions in a hyperbaric chamber—much like a diving recompression chamber—a still experimental therapy that has shown promising results in healing repeated brain trauma.
Aaron says his cognitive function improved by 60% following the treatments: “From where I was, I just feel 1,000 times better. My sleep isn’t all over the place, I am able to get good rest. I can actually hold thoughts together and put sentences together.” He now hopes to be able to take advantage of NSOF’s Transition Services.
Dressing the Part: NSOF directors with active-duty EOD Tim Richardson. Photo by
As NSOF expands its presence and fundraising both locally and in California and Florida, the staff hopes to offer more services like these. They also would like to be able to do more community outreach and events such as a recent trip to Wintergreen Resort at which EODs and Navy Divers were able to come together in a relaxed setting.
“When you’re in and you do it every day, you feel part of this family,” says Adam Fleck, NSOF Director and Board Member and a retired EOD. “Then all of a sudden one day, you’re out. It’s kind of a wake-up call. So, one of our leading initiatives is to bring those people back in and to have these times when the guys who have retired and seen some amazing things in their careers can be with some of the newer generation and have that bonding moment. That way no one is forgotten.”
Fleck himself benefited from NSOF’s services, including in his transition from Navy service to civilian career: “With the community being so unique, we need to make sure that the resources we provide are catered towards them. You need people who understand them, where they are, where they came from, where their assets are and how to translate those to the civilian sector.”
NSOF also continues to broaden its outreach through special events like the Memorial 5K race that took place at the Oceanfront on Nov. 9, and their second Annual Gala scheduled for June 6, 2020. These events are meant not only to increase awareness and bring the community together, but to be a great time for all. At this year’s 5K, a small group of brave EODs attempted to break the world record for fastest 5K run in a full bomb suit—serious fun for a serious cause.