Wounded Warrior: Blind Soldier Becomes Company Commander
By Tommy Gilligan
Special to American Forces Press Service
West Point, N.Y., Feb. 2, 2010 Soldier, infantryman, Airborne Ranger, combat diver, mountain climber, skier, tri-athlete, surfer, husband and father are just a few words to describe Army Capt. Scott M. Smiley.
Army Capt. Scott M. Smiley salutes 1st Sgt. Deon E. Dabrio after returning the guidon during the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Unit change of command ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., Feb. 1, 2010. Smiley is the first blind officer and second wounded warrior to hold a position of command. U.S. Army photo by Tommy Gilligan
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Yesterday, the title of company commander was added to Smiley’s distinctive resume, as he became the first blind officer to lead a company as he assumed command of the Warrior Transition Unit at the U.S. Military Academy here.
Smiley was wounded and permanently lost his vision during his 2005 deployment to Iraq. He attributes his strength and drive during his recovery to his family, faith and friends.
“It was my wife, my family and friends who were in my hospital room singing songs and reading the Bible that gave me the strength during my recovery,” said Smiley, a member of the USMA Class of 2003.
“It was all of this which allowed me to put one foot in front of the other,” he continued, “and has allowed me to accomplish everything that I have done to get to where I am today.”
Over the past six months, Smiley had been an instructor with the academy’s Behavioral Sciences and Leadership department, teaching a leadership course to third-year cadets.
Smiley’s “endurable spirit and character are traits that the cadets can just relate to,” said West Point instructor Lt. Col. Eric Kail. “He has overcome so much, through his attitude and desire to excel in life. Scott is a great teacher.”
After receiving medical attention following his tour in Iraq, Smiley was transferred to the Ft. Lewis, Wash., Warrior Transition Unit, where he began his recovery and journey to return to active status.
"There were some very long dark days, physically and mentally, but I just had to keep pushing on," Smiley said.
Smiley said he’d looked at what had happened to him in Iraq and made the decision that he was not going down the same path as the character Gary Sinise played in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Sinese’s character of Army Lt. Dan had been grievously wounded in Vietnam and was initially portrayed as bitter and self-destructive.
"The decisions that Lt. Dan made after his injuries never came into my mind. I wanted to take care of myself -- physically, mentally and spiritually," Smiley said. "I just did not want to give up because of something that negatively happened to me."
Smiley transitioned back to active duty, working at the U.S. Army Accessions Command at Ft. Monroe, Va. After being there for some time, Smiley's commander told him he had been selected to go to graduate school.
"I thought he was kidding me. I was absolutely shocked," Smiley recalled. "Then, they are going to let me go teach -- that was awesome.”
Smiley attended Duke University where he received his Masters of Business Administration. While there, he cultivated a friendship during the summer of 2007 with legendary Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, a 1969 graduate of the Military Academy.
This was just before the men's basketball world championships and Olympics, Smiley recalled, noting his brigade commander had approached him and asked if he’d like to speak to the premier U.S. men’s basketball squad.
“Why would the national basketball team want me to talk to them?" Smiley said he wondered to himself at the time.
"The first time I met him, he spoke to the Olympic team in Las Vegas. We were trying to teach the team about selfless service," Krzyzewski said. "They not only heard what Scott had to say, but they truly felt what he had to say.
"When I think of Scotty, I think of ultimate service, especially selfless service," Krzyzewski added.
After completing his master’s degree, Smiley returned to start a new chapter of his life at West Point, where his military career began in the summer of 1999.
Smiley's former commander at Accessions Command and present U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, shared his thoughts on the occasion.
"Scott brings a whole new dimension to soldiering and leadership,” said Van Antwerp, a 1972 graduate of the Military Academy. “When you are around him, you can't help but want to do your best -- without complaining -- because he gives his best every day."
About Smiley being the second Wounded Warrior to hold a command position, Van Antwerp said, "Scotty will be a great commander. He will lead from the front like he has always done. I am proud of him and proud of our Army for giving him this opportunity."
Krzyzewski seconded Van Antwerp’s pride and confidence in Smiley.
"He may not have the eyes to see, but he sees more things than most leaders could ever see," he said of Smiley’s leadership abilities.
At West Point, Smiley now takes command of a company that he personally understands.
"I know what they are going through. I understand the dynamics of the company, how it works and areas of concern that need to be improved," Smiley said.
With only half of his command based on West Point’s grounds, Smiley will travel from the rocky shorelines of Maine to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania to ensure his troops are being taken care of and doing what they need to do to recover.
"It is now my responsibility to inspire them and to continue to help them get the job done," Smiley said.
(Tommy Gilligan is the assistant editor for The U.S. Military Academy’s “Pointer View”)