Capt. Scotty Smiley - the Army's first blind active-duty officer - lives the true meaning of perseverance.
One of the last things Smiley remembers seeing is a parked vehicle on a roadside in Mosul, Iraq, in April 2005. The rear sagged toward the ground, perhaps heavy with explosives. The man beside it looked suspicious.
But in his Stryker armored vehicle, head and arms exposed, Smiley followed the Army's warfare rules of engagement that encourage minimum force to achieve the mission.
"We don't just shoot people because they look scary. Maybe the shocks were out in the back of the car," he said. "The decision I made was to ensure that, if the man was bad, not to let him harm anyone else. I shot two rounds in front of the vehicle, and that's when the man blew up the car and himself, and metal entered my eyes."
Why He Still Serves
Surviving an explosion that almost killed him was just the start of Smiley's ordeal. Recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he struggled with the reality of losing one eye entirely and his sight in the other. He asked, "Am I truly blind? Will I always be blind?"
The day he received the Purple Heart in his hospital bed was difficult.
"Receiving a Purple Heart was recognition that my life was changed," Smiley said. "Yes, you were wounded. Yes, you are blind."
With the support of his wife, high school sweetheart Tiffany, he admits to spending time "under a cloud," wondering why this had happened to him. He embraced a mourning process for his sight, working to focus not on the hardship, but on the good that has come from it.
"You have to accept the life you've been given," he said.
And he worked to get to an even more remarkable place in his heart.
"I had to forgive the man who had blown himself up," he said.
The struggle strengthened not only his personal faith, but also his desire to serve others and his country.
"One of the Army's values is selfless service," Smiley said. "I don't think anyone would ever say Scott Smiley has not served his country."
But he wasn't ready to stop.
Still Fit to Serve
Once an Army medical review board declared Smiley mentally and physically fit to serve, he was ready to move forward. Despite his blindness, he earned a Master of Business Administration from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he went on to teach military leadership at West Point and to command the Warrior Transition Unit at West Point's Keller Army Medical Center. He also earned the Army's prestigious MacArthur Leadership Award, which recognizes junior officers who demonstrate the ideals espoused by Gen. Douglas MacArthur: duty, honor, country.
When he wasn't working, he challenged himself in the great outdoors. "For me, being blind wasn't necessarily a total transformation of my life. Many of the things I do now, I did before. I just do them differently," Smiley said.
Things like, say, skydiving.
Always physically active, Smiley jumped in tandem with the U.S. Army's Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. He skied in Vail, Colorado, surfed in Hawaii and completed triathlons. "I did not want to give up physical activity," he said. "It's just my personality." His efforts led to a 2008 ESPY award from ESPN as the Best Outdoor Athlete.
His athleticism and positive attitude garnered Smiley an invitation to speak to groups nationwide, including the U.S. Men's Olympics Basketball "Dream Team" before their 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics gold-medal victories. "I wanted to give them a small glimpse of what wearing the American flag on their uniform means," he said. "It's not about profitability. It's not for endorsement. It's for the men and women who live here [in the United States]."
In his talks, he typically shares ideas such as:
- Serve others. "Give back more than we receive," he said.
- Lead by example. "Understand what you're asking others to do," he said. "You shouldn't lead an organization unless you understand the mission."
- Persevere. "Life is worth living," he said. "We all go through trials and hardship. Working through those trials, we all can improve."
He wrote about these concepts and told his story in a memoir, "Hope Unseen: The Story Behind the U.S. Army's First Blind Active-Duty Officer", co-authored with friend Doug Crandall.
Today, he lives with his wife and their two young sons in Spokane, Washington -- just two hours from the town where he and Tiffany grew up -- and works in an administrative role with the Gonzaga University ROTC program.
"I tell many people I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "I would still make all of the same decisions. I don't think I would even change the day I was blinded, just because of the opportunities I've had."
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