Blind ambition: Officer making a difference at Gonzaga
February 12, 2013
FORT KNOX, Ky. (Feb. 12, 2013) -- After the bomb, Capt. Scotty Smiley feared the Army wouldn't have a spot for a blind infantryman.
He could no longer use a gun, which ruled him out of many jobs in his chosen branch. As he recovered from a roadside bomb in Mosul, Iraq, that stole his sight in 2005, he wondered: Would the Army accept him? Did he even believe in himself and his own abilities, now that he was blind?
"Being blind was very scary, to not know where I'm going, not know who I'm talking to," Smiley said. "The Army is a constant 'prove yourself' organization -- and not just the Army, every organization. You have to prove yourself. You're questioned that much more, being blind.
"You can't just stay in and not do something; you have to have a job," he said. "As an infantry officer, where was my position in the world?"
But once he decided to stay in, the Army did have a place for him, and he continued to prove himself in a variety of roles. His most recent assignment is at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where since April, he has served as the executive officer for the Bulldog Battalion. And it turned out he is a natural at showing people the way.
"He's good at taking the curriculum and being able to put out scenarios to keep everyone engaged, and at guiding the discussion along to facilitate self-learning," said Lt. Col. David Bingham, the professor of military science at Gonzaga.
Smiley's listening ability helps him understand where people are coming from then guide them to understanding, Bingham said.
"I'll volunteer this: I'm not off the charts with IQ," Smiley said. "But I know how I learn best, and I know how to break it down. My knowledge base is still there: I still know how to do all those things. There's nothing that holds me back from teaching it."
Smiley said his world is "totally black," so he can't see if his Cadets are successfully executing squad training or field training exercises, but he can hear it.
He can hear how far apart his Cadets' footsteps are and know if they are in a good formation for their surroundings, or if they are putting themselves at risk for machine guns or grenades. He can listen to their pace count to tell if his students are executing their mission successfully.
Noncommissioned officers will also walk with Smiley and point out details he can't see, but he says it's not so tough to hear what they're doing.
"It's not like we have trained hunters; they're freshmen and sophomores beginning their military training," Smiley said.
The last thing Smiley saw was an explosion. He was leading a Stryker patrol in Mosul, Iraq, on the day he lost his sight. He was a platoon leader with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, and he spotted a suspicious-looking car weighted down in the back -- a potential car bomb. Still in the turret of his Stryker, Smiley was roughly 30 yards away from the Opel car. He ordered the driver to get out of the vehicle and fired warning shots when the driver did not.
The driver lifted his hands off the wheel. The car exploded.
Shrapnel tore into both of Smiley's eyes. At a nearby medical center, Smiley temporarily flatlined.
Surgery couldn't save his sight. Depressed and questioning what his life was worth, he faced a choice: He could lie in bed, or he could get up.
He got up. And he kept climbing until he literally stood at the summit of Mount Rainier, Wash.
But none of it was easy. He needed months of rehabilitation to learn to navigate a world of what he called perpetual night.
He had to learn to walk using a stick to guide him. He needs points of reference -- for example, he needs to know he's on a sidewalk, and he doesn't know that unless he can feel grass on one side and a curb on another. He needs to memorize how many paces until he turns left, and if he overshoots it, he has to re-trace his steps, if he can.
Incidentally, this is a challenge on Gonzaga's 125-year-old campus, where many of the sidewalks are made of brick and the cracks between them grab his stick. Often if he needs to go somewhere on campus, he has to hold a buddy's elbow.
Smiley has always been athletic -- a swimmer, a runner and a biker, plus he played center, linebacker and special teams for his senior-year 1998 high school state championship football team -- and he didn't want to give that up.
After the accident, he surfed in Hawaii, skydived, skied in Vail, Colo., and completed a triathlon.
In 2007, representatives from Camp Patriot, a nonprofit that takes disabled veterans on outdoor adventures, invited him to join them to climb Mount Rainier.
He compared the climb to the 10-mile road march in Ranger School. His muscles were exhausted, the oxygen was thin and the human body starts to eat itself above 8,000 feet because it can't metabolize food.
"I almost quit several times," Smiley said. "It took 13 hours of constant moving. And once you're at the summit, you're halfway there."
But he made it, and his accomplishment was noticed. In 2007, the Army Times newspaper named him its Soldier of the Year. In 2008, ESPN gave him an ESPY award as the world's Best Outdoor Athlete.
"You can't go into his office without bumping into some national-level award," Bingham said.
Smiley's first assignment out of rehab was as assistant G3 for initial military training for Accessions Command in Fort Monroe, Va. Later, he earned an MBA from Duke University, and served as an instructor for the core course in leadership at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
It was his first taste of teaching, and it was delicious.
"It was just awesome to impart my experience with those students and see how fast they were able to grow," Smiley said.
Later, he served as company commander of the Warrior Transition Unit at West Point's Keller Army Medical Center, the first blind officer to lead a company.
When he got the chance to be an ROTC instructor in early 2012, Smiley jumped at the chance. He and his wife, Tiffany, asked to go to Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., which is a couple of hours from their hometown of Pasco, Wash.
He now serves as the executive officer, and has taught two MS-IV classes -- one on counseling, one on morals. A computer program called JAWS reads emails, websites and documents to him, allowing him to perform all the administrative tasks that go along with ensuring his unit is adequately equipped and trained.
Smiley is promotable to major now and is weighing his options, including joining the civilian workforce. Despite his glowing resume, he knows he will have to continue to prove himself.
"You can't let down your guard; you have to keep putting your best foot forward," he said.