Capt. Scotty Smiley looks you right in the eyes. He’s got that unmistakable tough, lanky and sincere affect that many career soldiers exude. He reaches down, fumbles for his water bottle and then takes a drink. Pausing, he replaces the cap and sets the bottle back on his desk.
“[It was a] bright, sunny day, 95 degrees, you know, warm out,” he said. “The sun was blazing, no clouds, dry heat, the stench of Iraq.”
It’s obvious that he’s used to telling this story. Smiley had been in Mosul, Iraq, since mid-October 2004. It was April 2005.
“I basically found a suspicious vehicle, and surrounded it, or [as] we call it, cordoned [it] off, so in essence didn’t allow it to escape,” he said.
The vehicle in question was a silver Opel, a common car in Iraq, Smiley said. It was suspicious because its back was riding lower than its front. The driver was a normal-looking Iraqi man. He was wearing a gray shirt. Still, the heavier than normal back bothered Smiley. So he stood up out of his Stryker (an armored vehicle infantry units use) and yelled at the driver to stop.
“I yelled at him to get out of his vehicle. And I was, I think 25, 30 yards just to his south in my Stryker vehicle.”
The man looked over and raised his hand, off the steering wheel, shook his head and replaced his hands on the wheel. Smiley said he yelled again. The man responded the same way.
“And I yelled at him again and he did the same and then he let his foot off the brake and I raised my rifle, my M4 and I shot two rounds in front of his vehicle, just to let him know, I’m talking to you, yeah, I’m serious,” Smiley said. “And he basically detonated his vehicle. He and his vehicle disappeared in a ball of flame. And then metal hit me, basically in my face, and the metal went through both my eyes ... I woke up, approximately a week and a half, two weeks later in Walter Reed Medical Center, blind the rest of my life.”
That gray-shirted Iraqi on that hot, cloudless day is the last thing Capt. Scotty Smiley ever saw.
Smiley is the newest assistant professor of military science at Gonzaga. He’s also the father of two, soon to be three, children, an author and a professional speaker. He and his wife, Tiffany, run the company Hope Unseen, which books Smiley for speaking engagements, book tours and other events. According to his website he is the U.S. Army’s first blind active-duty officer.
When he looks at you now, with surprisingly convincing ocular implants, it seems almost natural that he’s blind. The explosion, his blindness, all of it fits nicely into the story that’s unfolded. Or to be more precise, the story that he’s crafted.
The reality is, he said, that when that bomb went off, his world went dark, literally and spiritually.
Smiley’s office is in the basement of College Hall, deep within the bowels of the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) offices and supply area. It’s a small room. The shelves are full of awards and medals. Next to his desk, prominently placed, is a medal commemorating his athletic achievements while in ranger training. Smiley is fit. A standout athlete in high school, he’s still trim and muscular. He runs, goes to the gym and he’s done a few triathlons, he said.
But the confident U.S. Army captain that Smiley is now was forged painfully through months of rehabilitation.
“I say my world went black. It literally went physically black, but it also went spiritually black. I was raised as a Christian ... my whole life,” Smiley said. “When something like that happens, I really didn’t know why and more so why me. Why did God allow something so devastating, so severe and tragic to happen to me? And you know it’s kind of the perception, that at least I had, and it’s embarrassing to say, I thought bad stuff only happened to bad people, and if I’m a good person why is this happening to me.”
Smiley said that while he was at Walter Reed he was a pain to be around. At one point his wife told him that she still loved him, but didn’t like him, he said, sheepishly laughing.
“One of my best friends asked me to say a prayer and I said, ‘No, I don’t know how to pray and I don’t know if I know God.’”
The recovery process was slow. Although he was at Walter Reed for only two months, he then spent an additional two months in Palo Alto, Calif., at the Veterans Affairs’ Western Blind Rehabilitation Center. There, he said, he had to relearn simple things, like how to use a computer.
“And that in and of itself was difficult. Because I was this independent person who had been independent my whole life,” he said. “I had won the state championship in football in 1998. So that independent person that I had always been, and I’m not bragging, but, like, I was physically fit, I was mentally strong, I was spiritually strong, and then boom, now I’m no one. I have to depend on people to take me from here to there. I have to depend on someone to teach me how to use a computer.”
All of this tested him, he said. Depression was a constant in his life. The turning point started to come, finally, when he was able to forgive the suicide bomber.
“You have to have forgiveness, and for me, I had to forgive the guy who blew himself up. He was in a million pieces. Disappeared. He was dead, never to make a negative impact on this world or any type of impact on this world,” Smiley said. “But I knew that if I never forgave him internally for what he had done to me, I don’t think I would ever be able to live [the] life in which I’m living now. [I wouldn’t] have the joy, you know that peace that surpasses all understanding, that I have now, because there would still be resentment, there would still be anger, there would still be hatred.”
It wasn’t an overnight recovery, he said. It took work, and in some sense is ongoing. The simple fact that he’s the only blind active-duty officer in the Army is a testament to his tenacity. Once he left Palo Alto, Smiley became an assistant for Accessions Command, which oversees and enforces enrollment protocol across the U.S. After this post Smiley attended Duke University. He graduated in 2009 with a master’s in business administration. Shortly afterward he became an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. At this point he was made company commander of the Warrior Transition Unit, a unit dedicated to helping injured soldiers recover.
Smiley moved to Spokane in April with his family, he said. He enjoys GU and is slowly getting to know the campus. Being blind forces him to “learn” an area in a different way. In the ROTC offices, he said, he knows his way around. However, when he goes to the Rudolph Fitness Center or other places around campus, he has to rely on his sticks and a friendly hand.
Gonzaga’s Disability Resources, Education, & Access Management (DREAM) Office has been helpful, he said. They set up his computer and purchased the necessary software for him.
Smiley has adapted. Still, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t miss some things.
“My wife’s beautiful face. I mean that’s what’s hard ... It’s hard. I have two beautiful, beautiful little boys, but they are two boys which I’ll never see. And that’s very hard.”
Smiley said, like most humans, he never fully appreciated his eyes until they were gone. It’s just one of those things, he said, that we as humans never “in essence give gratitude for.”
“All of that wrapped up makes me miss it,” he said. “But I think in the end, God giving me a plan, and God giving me a goal in life to continually positively influence people in his name, gives me a smile on my face every morning.”