San Diego is a special place for me. My first memory is playing on the beach with kelp near the Del Coronado hotel. I transformed from a doughy boy into a Marine at the recruit depot in the fall of 2001. Now with family living down here I have enjoyed the occasional visit paired with a quick tri in the morning. SuperSEAL was a great chance to see how my training was coming along for Ironman California 70.3 next month.
The SuperSEAL Course
SuperSEAL was a bit longer than the last Olympic distance triathlon I raced. The 1 mile swim was much closer to the Half-Iron distance and the 40k bike a decent length to see how my indoor trainer sessions (thanks to El Niño rains) had prepared me. The 10k run was standard length with the first leg on a dirt trail. Racing in San Diego usually affords great scenery, but Coronado’s Silver Strand tops them all.
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.