Until Chaps connected with the right hook, I thought I was well-prepared for the interview.
Lindsey Schmidt from Ironman’s PR firm reached out a few months ago to say they heard my story. Ironman wanted to get me on a cool, new veteran podcast to talk about why I race. It would be a chance to talk about the Marines on my jersey that keep me moving towards the finish line. I agreed to do the interview. I wrote an eBook about the Mind, Body, and Spirit. Finally, a chance to talk to a larger audience about a great way to deal with PTSD!
The interview started out great (listen to it here). We talked about how I went into the Marine Corps, ditched the band and joined the infantry, and shipped out to Iraq. He asked me what house-to-house fighting was like in Fallujah. Chaps was there in 2007 and has walked the streets of the former Baath Party hub. And of course, we chatted about how triathlon has helped me deal with the demons of PTSD and turn it into something positive. So Chaps throws the verbal jab and I take the bait.
This is the sixth installment of a yearlong training journey towards my first full Ironman triathlon. To start at the beginning, click here.
New year, but the same training. I felt better this month. Some life stressors were situational and temporary: My licensure exam (I passed), Christmas, the flu, ….so I was not expecting to be more stressed out. I expected some negative side-effects from the medication, but none appeared. No increased heart-rate, no weight gain, no foggy head. I decided to stop worrying about what could possibly go wrong with taking medication. I was taking it. I felt better. How about I just enjoy that for now?
Training continued as usual as I continued to build my aerobic base. I knew that things would start to ramp up in the next months and I prepared myself mentally for that. As with all things, a routine can start to get boring after a while. As humans, we detect change more readily. I noticed that I was looking forward to my swims the most right now. Why? Probably because the runs and bike rides were on the same routes for the same amount of time. My swim workouts with the Masters team were different each day and forced me to be mentally engaged.
The real manatees….
….and the stuffed manatee.
Our vacation to Florida to attend a friend’s wedding was a welcome change to the schedule.We made sure to check out the manatees, see Disney World, and feed the ducks whenever we could. Seeing my daughter, Addie, smile and giggle meeting her favorite princesses and enjoy the rides made my heart sing.
Riding the Teacups at Disney World
Not having access to a local pool or bikes meant I was mostly running and walking -alternating each day. Even running new routes felt like a whole new sport. I had underestimated how a change in scenery can better things. Training-wise, my favorite part of the trip was finding an open-water swim near Orlando. Lucky’s Lake Swim is world-famous and boasts a cult following of locals.
The day greeting Lucky’s Lake
Later in the week, we headed to the Cocoa Beach for the day. We saw a large shark circling the pier in search of some lunch in the clear water. Awhile later I decided to take a dip in the water.
My daughter reassured me, letting me know, “ the shark is probably gonna bite you, dad.” Thanks.
Just happy be to here!
Being a parent forces one to find creative solutions. Three-year-olds don’t always like cross country flights and let that be known in subtle to not-so-subtle ways. During our two hour layover in Austin, I changed into a galloping horse with Addie on my shoulders. Daily workout: check. Pacified kiddo: check.
Family time has gotten much better. What do I mean by that? I was able to participate and enjoy being there. Sure there were always challenging parts of parenting like handling tantrums and trying to convince a three-year-old that they will feel better if they actually eat something. The balance of training and family life is more than just paying my dues to watch the kids. If things aren’t going right, the stress affects my training. It also makes me go back to why I am training so hard in the first place – to be a better version of myself. This means not being absent from the family all day every day just to get some more training in. If I’m not exercising or training, then my body isn’t moving like it should and I’m not as great at being a family man.
For the technical aspects of my training, my mile times hovered around 10:20. Not great, but I am trusting in the training and realizing that life stress is playing a part in this. Increasing sleep and fun time with family is helping. One more month down and halfway towards Ironman Santa Rosa.
One needs an ample supply of mental toughness to hack it in the Marine Corps. From day one of boot camp, the emphasis on physical fitness and the tolerance of misery is made clear. There is no getting around it. Weak-bodied young men are turned into PT studs, or at the very least lose their baby fat. They learn the beauty of the pull-up bar, crunches, and a three-mile run.
Or Copy Code:
Ahhh, the memories…
At the end of my all-inclusive stay at MCRD San Diego, I lost 30 pounds and could hoist my pale body above the pull-up bar for double-digit reps. Like everyone else, I learned to push past doubts and the mental limits my mind had created for what I could and could not do. Ironman’s phrase of “Anything is Possible” became a mantra even before I knew what a triathlon was.
Many veterans describe the transition out of the military as a major change in life. That is compounded by a combat deployment where chaos and uncertainty can turn one’s worldview upside-down. But for some the switch is even more difficult. Some come back with PTSD, some with missing limbs, and some without the ability to see. Major Scotty Smiley is one of those individuals who lost his eyesight on the battlefield when a suicide bomber detonated himself near Scotty’s Stryker vehicle. Rather than let his disability define him, Scotty has made a career of redefining what is possible and defying the conventional wisdom regarding what blind people can and can’t do.
Major Scotty Smiley summits Mt. Rainier.
I had the honor of talking with Major Smiley, or “Scotty,” as close friends and family call him. A few months back I came across his story on the Ironman website. A video showed a blind man talking about how he decided that he should run an Ironman triathlon as one of many arduous endeavors he has overtaken to share his story. I wound up ordering his book, Hope Unseen, which chronicles his life story from childhood to combat and back home again.
Scotty grew up in Pasco, Washington and enjoyed playing just about every sport available. He excelled in football and wrestling in high school and credits his training for instilling values in him like independence and dependence.
Scotty learned to be independent in wrestling, taking responsibility. “When it came down to it, I either beat the other guy or I didn’t and it was on me,” he noted. He knew that his coaches could get him so far with training and motivation, but it was up to him to deliver. Playing football taught him dependence on other teammates. In order to win, he remembers having to make sure everyone was operating on the same page and that the team was only as strong as its weakest link.
Besides his involvement in sports, Scotty Smiley was raised a devout Christian. He recalled how his mother encouraged her children to read the Bible and practice the teaching of Jesus in their lives. Forgiveness would play a major role in how Scotty dealt with his homecoming and blindness.
Into the Army
After high school, Scotty was accepted to the Military Academy at West Point and began his training as an Army officer. He wrestled for a year, but decided to focus on his studies after his freshman year because of the rigorous academic load each cadet must shoulder to become a commissioned officer in the Army. Not too long after graduation he married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany. Scotty received further training in infantry tactics and completed Ranger School without having to be recycled or repeat any of the training in which many soldiers wash out.
Kristy (Webb) Graham, Edward Graham, Scotty and Tiffany at Ranger School graduation, Ft. Benning, Georgia.
In 2005, Scotty and his unit were deployed to Mosul where they patrolled the streets in Strykers. By this time in the war, suicide bombings had started to increase and were a common tactic against American forces. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recounts in detail the experience of leading soldiers in Iraq.
On April 6th, 2005, Scotty encountered the man who would detonate his own body and send Scotty into a world of darkness.
Major Smiley awoke in a bed in Walter Reed Medical Center, Tiffany and the rest of his family coming to visit him as soon as they could. Dazed and disoriented, Scotty had nightmares of being in Iraq and would yell out for his Oakley sunglasses. Painkillers and PTSD blurred the lines of dreams and reality as he endured surgeries to remove shrapnel and unsuccessful attempts to repair his eyesight.
He didn’t believe in himself at this point and recalled feeling abandoned by God. Doubt, despair, confusion, and self-pity made his sightless world feel even darker. In addition to losing his eyesight, Scotty had to regain function in the right side of his body and deal with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by the explosion and shrapnel. In short, he was fortunate to have survived the blast at all.
“I felt guilty then and feel guilty now as I remember questioning God in such a way. It goes against everything I grew up believing. But what you believe can change when your world is blown apart. I couldn’t run from these feelings or thoughts.” –Hope Unseen, pg. 103
Despite this, friends and family were there to return the encouragement and strength that Scotty had shared with all of them before being wounded. He was visited by a young boy he had taught in Sunday School while at West Point. The visit was a pivotal moment in Scotty’s recovery. It helped him to realize how many people still looked up to and genuinely cared about him. Soon after he decided that lack of sight would not stop him from getting out of bed and attempting to shower on his own.
Jeff Van Antwerp visits Scotty at Walter Reed.
After being transferred to the V.A. Hospital in Palo Alto, California. , the rehabilitation continued. Scotty began lifting weights again and learning to walk with a cane to guide him. He endured the humility of basic cognitive testing that included adding up change. His mind was filled with thoughts of how far he had fallen in less than a few months.
“I’m Ranger and scuba qualified. I dodged flying bullets. I wanted to pick up the change and hurl it across the room.” –Hope Unseen pg. 144.
Anger towards the suicide bomber in Mosul still weighed on him. By blowing himself up, this man had taken not only Scotty’s eyesight, but his independence. Scotty remembered the teachings of Jesus and how forgiveness was a central theme. Holding onto anger and resentment was not going to help him move forward. By deciding to forgive this man and let go of the anger, Scotty recalls how much lighter he felt. He is convinced that this act of forgiveness was a crucial step in his recovery.
A Swell of Confidence
After returning to his duty station in Ft. Lewis, Scotty and Tiffany took a vacation to Hawaii to visit family friends and get away from the hospital life. It was there that he had an audacious thought. Scotty decided he was going to surf. His close friend and fellow Army officer, Jeff Van Antwerp, agreed to take him out and give it a go. Following Jeff’s voice and guidance, Scotty paddled out. After ignoring the doubts his mind sent him, urging him to quit, he felt the surge of the perfect wave and hoisted himself up on his board. He rode five waves that day and had an epiphany.
“…I was learning that if I believed in myself, asked God for help, and reached out to others, I could overcome my limitations. And I did it.” –Hope Unseen, pg. 158
Hitting his Stride
His journey did not stop with surfing. Scotty went on to summit Mt. Rainier, wakeboard, earn an MBA at Duke University and taught at West Point. He was the first blind active-duty soldier in the history of the Army. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recalls encountering many obstacles and doubt along the way, but each time he forged ahead and blazed his own trail. Scotty retired from the Army in 2015 after earning the rank of major.
Many people would be tempted to pat themselves on the back after such an impressive list of accomplishments, but the phrase “slow down” does not appear in Major Smiley’s vocabulary. He decided to run an Ironman triathlon after being convinced by his brother-in-law, Andy Cooper. For those unfamiliar, and Ironman involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 (marathon) run. “I thought he was insane at first,” recalled Scotty.
Scotty and Andy trained together until the time came for the Coeur D’alene Ironman. Just in case the course length was not difficult enough, the event saw a record high temperature of 105º that day. Despite wanting to quit multiple times, he found the strength to continue because the race wasn’t just about him. During the first half of the run, Scotty began to slow down and wanted to quit. It was then that his wife, Tiffany, reminded him of the motivation for going on:
“You’re not doing this for yourself! You’re doing it for those who didn’t make it back.”
Scotty ran the second half of his marathon even faster because he found renewed purpose and thought of an Army value he had embodied his whole career as a soldier: selfless service. Scotty made a decision to continue despite the doubts or discomfort. Just like years ago in his bed in Walter Reed, a choice was before him. He could choose to sit in his PTSD and depression and let it control his life, but the world was not going to stop. He had to make a decision to move forward, no matter how small the steps were at first.
Celebrating at the finish line with his wife, Tiffany.
In talking with Scotty Smiley it became very apparent that self-pity was not part of his identity. He focuses on the now and what is to come instead of dwelling in the past. Like many veterans, he doesn’t want or need pity. When encountering an obstacle he pauses only long enough to figure out how to climb over. Today he can be found taking care of his three boys, working as an investment banker, giving motivation talks, and training for his next endurance event. I hope to race with him one of these days, but either way his story has inspired me to continue pushing the limits of what I think is possible.
To read the full story, order Scotty’s book Hope Unseen.
Two of the common difficulties for veterans readjusting to civilian life are anxiety and depression. Sometimes the feelings come after a major life change like exiting the military or returning from war. Other times they are longer lasting symptoms that can accompany other problems and warrant a diagnosis of PTSD. Either way, anxiety and depression can be a heavy burden to carry.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a couple definitions for anxiety, one being:
“an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.”
I awoke 30 minutes before my alarm went off. Race day! I dressed and triple-checked my gear to make sure nothing was missing. My friend Chris and I loaded gear into his truck and hitched my bike to the carrier. The family would not be awake for another couple hours. As opposed to many other races and events, a sense of calm pervaded over the race-day jitters. The waiting for Ironman 70.3 Vineman had ended.
This race was different for a few reasons. First off, I managed to stick to my sixteen-week training plan without missing too many training sessions. I missed a few of my long bike rides because of some weekend trips, but I was able to prioritize my training and plan sessions around work and family time. I knew I had put the hours and miles in. But it was not just the training that put me at ease. Today I had the quiet resolve to finish no matter what because I was representing my friends and fellow Marines who had died fighting with me in Iraq or lost their lives since returning. This race was bigger than me. I knew a lot of people were pulling for me.