Face of Defense: Army Amputee Keeps Innate Optimism
By Elaine Sanchez
Brooke Army Medical Center
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Aug. 28, 2014 A hit-and-run driver robbed Staff Sgt. Michael Smith of his arm and nearly his life, but failed to impact his single-minded determination.
Army Staff Sgt. Michael Smith prepares to cycle in the Warrior Games Trials at West Point, N.Y., in June 2014. Smith qualified for cycling, but opted to compete in swimming and track and field at the Warrior Games in Colorado next month. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“My commitment was to staying in the Army for 20 [years],” Smith said. “There was no way I was going to be shortchanged due to someone else’s negligence.”
After two years of intense rehabilitation and training at Brooke Army Medical Center, Smith’s persistence paid off. An above-the-elbow amputee, Smith met every standard and was approved earlier this month to return to duty as a career soldier.
“I’m very excited about what the future holds,” the 15-year veteran said. “With or without my injury, I want my daughter to know what true commitment looks like.”
Commitment never wavered
In the years since his accident, Smith’s commitment has never wavered.
A recruiter in Nashville, Tennessee, at the time, Smith was riding his motorcycle when a texting driver slammed into him from behind. He flew over the guardrail and was then hit midair by a driver coming from the opposite direction.
“I was knocked unconscious on impact, and when I woke up I was lying on the highway,” Smith recalled. “My boots and helmet had come off, and my arm was hanging on by the skin inside my jacket sleeve.”
Smith tried to move off the road but was unable. The texting driver had driven off but the second driver, a Navy corpsman, rushed over and tended to his wounds until the ambulance arrived. In the coming months, Smith underwent six surgeries due to infection, which eventually claimed most of his right arm.
Miraculous turnaround and rehabilitation
Not long afterward, Smith had another brush with death when he suffered kidney failure. His father drove up from Amarillo, Texas, he said, and sat by his bedside praying for hours.
“The next couple of days, I made a miraculous turnaround,” Smith recalled.
Facing a long rehabilitation and based on a recommendation from his cousin, who works at Brooke Army Medical Center here, Smith requested to be assigned to BAMC’s Warrior Transition Battalion.
A week-and-a-half later, he arrived at the Center for the Intrepid, BAMC’s outpatient rehabilitation center. Smith’s goal was to return to active duty, but he knew he was facing an uphill battle.
“I spoke to the CFI staff and they pushed me to do everything,” he said. “I knew I had to prove I could do just as much if not more than anyone else.”
Focusing on sports
With this goal in mind, the former high school athlete dove into every sport possible. He mastered shooting firearms. He ran Spartan races, Tough Mudders, and half-marathons. Tough Mudders are 10- to 12-mile obstacle courses designed to test strength, stamina and teamwork skills.
Smith also went rock climbing, skiing and snowboarding. He swam, cycled and took part in track and field. He joined soccer, basketball and kickball leagues.
Earlier this month, Smith nervously appeared before the Physical Evaluation Board. Yet he felt confident they’d approve his request to remain in the Army. He was thrilled when they declared him fit for active duty.
“I’ve been committed to the Army my entire adult life,” he said. “I feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to continue to serve.”
Return to duty, promotion
Smith, who is slated to be promoted to sergeant first class this week, hopes to resume his prior career in field artillery.
“I just want to be a regular soldier, go to combat if needed,” he said. “I honestly feel like there’s nothing I can’t do now, thanks to the support from my family, friends and the staff at the CFI who were with me every step of the way.”
As he awaits orders, Smith is filling his time with his other passion: sports. He’s slated to represent the Army in track and field and swimming at the Warrior Games next month, and continues to cycle daily in hopes of making the 2016 Paralympic team.
Smith said he believes to this day that he lost his arm for a reason.
“I would like to inspire and motivate others struggling with mental or physical challenges,” he said. “No one should let their injury determine who they are or who they want to be.”