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Blind soldier surfs, climbs mountains and frozen waterfalls

Iraq war vet surfs, climbs mountains, is in state Hall of Fame

Scott Smiley, left, with State Sen. William Larkin Jr., right, at Larkin’s office in the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Albany, N.Y. Smiley, a 2003 West Point graduate and an Army captain, lost his sight in 2005 while serving in Iraq. (State Senate photo)

Scott Smiley was an exceptional athlete, a 2003 West Point graduate and an Army captain when he arrived in Mosul, the Iraqi city once known for its ancient Christian monastery, the tomb of Old Testament prophet Jonah and a modern medical college. The war began in 2003, and the city was ransacked. Hundreds of Iraqi policemen were murdered.

“It was a little piece of hell,” Smiley said Tuesday, remembering. “A suicide bomber killed 21 of our people when he blew himself up in our cafeteria.”

The last sight Smiley would ever see was the car bomb that blinded him in 2005. Shrapnel blew through his eyes. One eye was removed surgically, the other is sightless.

“I was angry and bitter,” Smiley said candidly. “When I lost my sight, I felt I’d lost my identity. I lost my faith in God. Being an athlete was so much a part of who I am.”

His athletic ability became the way he reclaimed his life and his faith. His military buddies and wife Tiffany convinced him to try new sports, master new physical skills as well as push himself intellectually. He tells the story in his new book, “Hope Unseen.”

Despite his terrible injuries, he remained the Army’s only active duty blind officer. He earned the rank of major, taking his exams orally. He got an MBA from Duke University. When he left the military, he became an investment banker with Drexel Hamilton in Albany, a financial services firm that employs 42 veterans, 21 of whom are service-disabled.

Scott Smiley, left, meets with State Sen. William Larkin Jr., right, at Larkin’s office in the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Albany, N.Y. Smiley, a 2003 West Point graduate and an Army captain, lost his sight in 2005 while serving in Iraq. (State Senate photo)

Oh, and he won a 2008 ESPY for being the World’s Best Outdoor Athlete. He’s a triathlete and went to Hawaii’s north shore to learn surfing.

“In winter, the waves are at their roughest and highest,” Tiffany said.

“So I decided to learn to surf in December,” Scott finished and the two laughed.

At first, one of his fellow officers, an avid surfer, would be on a nearby surfboard shouting directions.
Smiley learned mountain climbing in winter when hungry bears hibernate. A friend climbing peaks or frozen waterfalls with him would wear a bell so Smiley could keep track of his buddy’s position.

State Sen. William Larkin Jr., World War II and Korean War veteran, selected Smiley for induction into the New York Veterans’ Hall of Fame in Albany. The ceremony took place Tuesday.

Larkin has a Veterans’ Advisory Committee that recommends honorees, and the Republican lawmaker from Orange County took a special interest in Smiley. He felt a bond with the young father of three small children who fought the restrictions that blindness imposed and the spiritual peace he won. Both men made physical sacrifices in the military.

During the Battle of Chosin in Korea, when the temperature was 35 degrees below zero for days, soldiers froze to death and the wounded died when plasma froze before there could be a transfusion.

“My hands and feet were frozen, but I was lucky to make it to a hospital in Japan,” Larkin said. “My feet and hands still ache sometimes. My grandchildren ask why my hands always feel ice cold. I don’t tell them because I don’t want to scare them.”

The nerve damage Larkin suffered was so severe that he often uses a wheelchair. An aide offered him one Tuesday, but he waved it off so he could walk in with Smiley.

“I hope when American leaders send to young people into battle in the next war,” said Larkin, who is 88 and a retired lieutenant colonel, “they have a plan and a goal and remember it is war, even if, as the case was with Iraq and Korea, war is never officially declared.”

Smiley’s been to the top of Mount Rainier in Washington where he now lives. If anyone has earned the right to a great view, it would seem to be him. When they summit, his friends describe the sky, terrain and light and he can enjoy the feel and scent of the icy, fresh air.

“Really, all I feel at the summit is joy, pure, strong joy that I have my life back, a wonderful wife and three beautiful children,” Smiley said. “One day, I’d love to go to Antarctica to mountain climb.”

Scott Smiley, center, and wife, Tiffany, right, stand for a photo with State Sen. William Larkin Jr., left, at the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Albany, N.Y. Smiley, a 2003 West Point graduate and an Army captain, lost his sight in 2005 while serving in Iraq. (State Senate photo)

Tiffany laughed and rolled her eyes.

“Why can’t you take up something safer like golfing?” Tiffany teased him.

“There’s good money to be made in bets with other golfers; I’ll just have them tee off at midnight,” Smiley said, grinning.

Author: Lynda J. Edwards
Posted: May 16, 2017
View the original article in the timesunion

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