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In blindness, soldiers find new niche in military
Written by MICHAEL HILL,Associated Press Writer   
Friday, 21 May 2010 11:00

 

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — Since a car bomb blinded Capt. Scott Smiley in Iraq, he has skied Vail, climbed Mount Rainier, earned his MBA, raised two young boys with his wife, won an Espy award and pulled himself up from faith-shaking depths.

Smiley, 30, has snagged attention for his big accomplishments. But the daily ones are telling, too, including the recent tour he gave of his staff's offices at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he plans to attend President Barack Obama's address of the Class of 2010 on Saturday.

Unable to see the path around the workers' cubicles, Smiley stepped forward with a joke to the camouflage-clad officers he was showing around: "I walk around, and when I hit things, I move," he said.

An aide trailing him said softly, "Turn right, sir," at a doorway. Smiley turned.

Smiley, of Pasco, Wash., is one of only a handful of soldiers who chose to remain on active duty after being blinded by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that's rare but one that military officials say benefits both parties.

Though unable to return to his old infantry duties in Iraq, Smiley has thrived in stateside postings such as his latest at West Point, from which he graduated in 2003. He now commands the Warrior Transition Unit at West Point for ailing or wounded soldiers.

Voice software allows Smiley to listen to e-mails, books and pamphlets. Aides help him navigate and tell him what order he's signing. It's a little like changing his son's diapers at home: He's fine as long as he knows where everything is.

His resiliency and energy helped him earn the 2007 Soldier of the Year commendation from the publication Army Times, as well as an ESPN Espy award in 2008 for best outdoor athlete.

He earned his master's of business administration at Duke University and has spoken to the Olympic and Duke teams coached by Mike Krzyzewski, a fellow West Point alum. He has a memoir coming out this year titled "Hope Unseen."

Smiley said he's not trying to prove anything with his exploits.

"In terms of getting an MBA, climbing Mount Rainier, it's what I always wanted to do," he said. "Why should I stop that?"

Smiley was injured April 6, 2005, six months into a deployment to Iraq. He led patrols through Mosul, a dangerous city where a too-high pile of garbage could be hiding explosives and the enemy blended in with the populace.

Sgt. 1st Class Mike Branham, who served as a squad leader under Smiley, said his fellow serviceman was a topflight officer, one who stood out for his deep Christian faith and detailed knowledge of his soldiers.

"He knew their names, he knew their wives' names, he knew their likes and dislikes," Branham said.

Smiley was leading a patrol in an armored Stryker vehicle when, from his perch in the forward hatch, he spotted a silver Opel that matched intelligence descriptions of a potential car bomb. The trunk appeared to be weighed down and the driver acted as though he didn't understand Smiley, who fired warning shots at the ground when it looked as if the driver was going to pull forward.

The driver raised his hands, and the car went up in a fireball.

Shrapnel tore through Smiley's left eye and lodged in his frontal brain lobe; another fragment the size of a pencil lead pierced his right eye.

Slumped unconscious in the Stryker hatch, Smiley was rushed to a medical center, where he briefly flatlined as friends prayed at his bedside.

Branham recalls, "I didn't think he was going to make it past that day at all."

He was left permanently blinded and temporarily paralyzed on his right side.

Stabilized and shipped stateside, Smiley struggled with his fate. He had vowed at his wedding to take care of his wife, Tiffany, and there she was, taking care of him. The exertion of wiggling his big toe required a three-hour nap.

He received his Purple Heart on his hospital bed. A video posted on YouTube of the ceremony shows his brother Neal struggling to maintain composure as he reads the citation. Smiley, looking beaten and uncomfortable in his bed, turns his head away.

"When I got to the hospital and I finally realized what happened, what my life was going to be like, I didn't believe in God. I questioned my faith. I questioned everything that was ever said to me before," Smiley said. "Because in my mind, why would God allow something like this to happen to me?"

Smiley credits his wife, family and faith for helping him accept his condition. Ultimately, he decided he didn't want to be like the Lt. Dan character played by Gary Sinise in "Forrest Gump," the officer who wants to be left to die when he loses his legs in Vietnam. He would push on. And if his path kept him in the Army, that was fine.

"I was totally prepared to get out," he said. "But still in the back of my mind, it was: 'I still have so much to give. I love serving my country.'"

The Army says at least four other totally or partially blind soldiers have remained on active duty since Iraq and Afghanistan.

Capt. Ivan Castro lost his sight and suffered other serious injuries in a 2006 mortar attack in Iraq and is now stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion. Castro, a 42-year-old who runs marathons and 50-mile races, appears to share some personality traits with Smiley — and says he also felt he still had something to serve after being injured.

"I've been doing this for over 18 years," Castro, who was born in Hoboken, N.J., and grew up in Puerto Rico, said in a phone interview. "This is all I know. This is what I love. This is what I live for."

Castro's commander, Lt. Col. Fredrick Dummar, said the continued service by blind soldiers fits with the military philosophy that everyone has unique abilities and that "there's always somebody on the team that can accomplish a mission."

Smiley was at first posted at Accessions Command, which oversees recruiting, and later earned his MBA. He returned to West Point last year to teach and took command this year of the Warrior Transition Unit here this year. He lives on post with Tiffany and their two young boys. After the West Point graduation ceremony Saturday, he plans to pin lieutenant bars on one of the roughly 1,000 cadets who will become new Army officers.

Smiley conceded that he might have a better understanding of the ailing soldiers under his command but is quick to add that his overriding concern is maintaining Army standards — for his soldiers and for himself.

"I still want to be the person I always wanted to be," he said.

 

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