WEST POINT, N.Y. — 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. He was also the Army Times Soldier of the Year 2007.
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 watch President Barack Obama address the Class of 2010 on Saturday.
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.
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.