It was the first day of the term, and 16 West Point cadets were filing into their C Hour class in Leadership in Thayer Hall. At 09:50, the instructor called the class to attention, received the attendance report from the section marcher, and told the cadets to take their seats. “There’s one interesting thing you should know about me,” the instructor said, “I’m blind. I can’t see anything. So, raising your hand in this class is pretty much going to be a waste of time” The cadets laughed. It was a joke. Everyone knows there are no blind officers in the army.
Captain Scotty Smiley is the first blind instructor at the United States Military Academy and only the second blind commanding officer in U.S. military history. A 2003 West Point graduate, Smiley is one of 60 soldiers who have been seriously injured but have been able to continue their military career as part of the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit begun by the Army since the War in Iraq. “It was a bit of a fight at first,” Smiley says, “but the Army is beginning to change it’s attitudes toward severely injured soldiers.” commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, who has championed Smiley’s cause, has said that he thought the WWTU is just applying the Army’s creed to never leave behind a fallen comrade. "If they can contribute, they ought to be able to stay in," he said. "The mentality years ago was once you're injured, you're no longer of much value," an Army spokesman said. “Senior Army leaders think differently now. We're looking for ways to use the skills and experience that the soldiers still have. Because they're blind or missing a leg or have other difficulties doesn't mean they're not an asset to the Army."
In April 2005, Smiley was a lieutenant in a stryker brigade combat team platoon in Mosul, Iraq when . a heavily-laden truck approached his position. The behavior of the driver and the unusual way the vehicle’s weight appeared to be distributed aroused Smiley’s suspicions. He yelled and fired two warning shots into the ground, but the driver responded passively and even raised his hands as if to surrender. It was then that the truck disintegrated 30 yrds. In front of Smiley, sending shratnel into both eyes, lacerating his left frontal lobe, and paralyzing the right side of his body. "You can't just shoot someone because you think he's a bomber," said smiley. "He could have had a bunch of metal in the back of his car; he might have been from out of town and lost. I would have had a .50-cal blow his head off if I had known," Smiley said, crediting his shattered Oakley M Frame ballistic glasses with saving his life.
After evacuation to Germany for several surgeries, Smiley was sent to the Walter Reed Army Hospital for physical therapy. By this time, he had regained use of the right side of his body, but it was apparent that both eyes had to be enucleated. His wife, Tiffany, recalls Smiley crying only twice, once when he received the purple heart and again when he was told his remaining eye could not be salvaged.
Shortly after arriving at Walter Reed, a civilian social worker encouraged Tiffany to sign papers medically retiring Scott from the service. All West Point graduates are expected to serve five years after graduation to repay the Government for the $250,000. investment in their education. While Smiley’s injuries would have exempted him from this obligation, something told his wife not to sign the papers that would end her husband's army career. "Instantly, this thing inside me was like 'No, this isn't right,'" she recalled. "It was just this gut feeling."
After release from Walter Reed and determined to continue his Army career, Smiley spent two months in Palo Alto, California at the Veterans Administration’s Visually Impaired Service Team program learning to use a cane, read and write Braille, and work with adaptive technology.
Despite doctors and therapists advising him that his military career was over, Smiley transitioned back to active duty, working at the U.S. Army Accessions Command at Fort Monroe, Va. Only a year after leaving Iraq, Smiley was promoted to captain. During the promotion ceremony, the officer awarding his captain’s bars said, “"We aren't giving this to you; you have earned this." In 2007, Smiley was selected as the U.S. Army’s soldier of the year. After serving at the Virginia post for nine months, Smiley's commander told him he had been selected to go to graduate school at Duke University. "I thought he was kidding me. I was absolutely shocked,"Smiley said.
At Duke, Smiley had to adjust to reading books on CD, working with a talking computer, and meeting the demands of one of the nation’s most competitive graduate programs. In 2009, however, he earned his Masters degree in Business Administration. While Smiley was at Duke, he also renewed a friendship that he had begun in the summer of 2007 with legendary Duke basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, West Point Class of 1969.
“It’s about staying motivated,” Smiley says. “Sometimes people can be negative or say that you can’t do something. I consider their opinion, file it, and then I move on! I just want to be happy.” Although he has undergone major changes in his life, Smiley adds, "I'm the same exact person I was before."
Even though Smiley was still in the Army, it looked as though his path to professional advancement was blocked because of his blindness. In order to move through the ranks, officers must have command of other soldiers, something that seemed extremely remote after graduation from Duke.
The Wounded Warrior program, however, is intended to assist seriously injured soldiers get jobs if they want to return to civilian life or transition back to active duty if they want to stay in the Army. Because of his extraordinary personal story, Smiley was given the opportunity to have his dream assignment – returning last year to teach at West Point.
Assigned to teach a leadership course to third year cadets in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department, Smiley had to quickly adjust to being a newly blinded instructor and role model for future officers. He spent hour after hour trying to learn how to send e-mail to his classes. Because none of his texts were recorded and live readers were not an option at the Point, the newly blinded teacher had to tear every single page out of the leadership course guide and place them one-by-one on a scanner and then listen to them over and over until he had absorbed the class content. Although he had memorized all of the shortcut keys for Power Point 2003 while at Duke, he now had to learn the 2007 version in the few days before the beginning of the term. “The switch from Office 2003 to 2007 reduced my own work productivity by at least 50%,” Smiley said.
His initial classes were far from the perfection expected of West Pointers. He sent the same e-mail four times in a technologically challenged effort to introduce himself to his classes. On another occasion, his Power Point presentation became confused, and a student had to help extricate his instructor. “Holy ----,” a cadet in the back of the room was heard to say. Until then, he obviously hadn’t believed the teacher was really blind.
Smiley, however, brings far more important qualities to his classroom than the average instructor. On that first day, adjusting for the first time to presenting himself before Skeptical cadets, he realized that, in the process of concentrating on his lesson, he had lost track of the computer he needed for the rest of the Power Point presentation. “Come here, computer. Come here,” he joked, sounding more like someone calling his guide dog than an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy.
"His endurable spirit and character are traits that the cadets can just relate to," said Lieutenant Colonel Eric Kail, a colleague in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department. "He has overcome so much through his attitude and desire to excel in life. Scott is a great teacher."
This is a view shared by Smiley’s students as well. Cadet Will Webb’s comment is typical: “Captain Smiley has greatly impacted my West Point experience in numerous ways. As an Army Officer and West Point graduate, he has mentored me and supported me through the toughest challenges here at the Academy. . . . There is no doubt that without the influence of Captain Smiley in my life, my overall experience at West Point this year could not have been the same.”
Since losing his vision, Smiley works out regularly in the post gym, rides a tandem bicycle, and runs with his wife, tethered by a short chord. In addition, he has surfed, gone skydiving and skiing and climbed Mount Rainier, a feat that earned him ESPN's 2008 ESPY award for Best Outdoor Athlete.
Beginning last February, Smiley assumed command of a company of 120 soldiers who have been wounded or have other medical issues and are either transitioning out of the military or to other assignments in the service. With only half of his time now spent at the Point, Smiley travels from Maine to Pennsylvania to check on his troops and insure that they are doing what is necessary to get better. "It is now my responsibility to inspire them and to continue to help them get the job done," Smiley says.
A visit from an Army buddy several years ago led to another unanticipated turn in Smiley’s life. Doug Crandall, who used to teach leadership classes at the Academy, had met Smiley when the young soldier served as a guest speaker in his course. When Crandall dropped by Smiley’s home in Pasco, Washington over Christmas, the friends got to joking and telling stories. Crandall was so mesmerized that he suggested that Smiley write a book.
"(I) said, 'I'll tell the stories and you write it,'" Smiley remembered, never thinking anything would come of the idea. He wasn’t serious. This fall, however, Hope Unseen, the story of his deployment to Iraq, life changing injury, and readjustment to life and continuation of his military career, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster.
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