2007 Soldier of the Year
Captain Scott Smiley
His wife, Tiffany, gave birth to their first baby, a son named Grady, on May 12.
FORT MONROE, Va. - Capt. Scott Smiley says store clerks don't always realize he's blind until he has handed them a credit card and doesn't extend his hand when they try to give it back.
His blindness hasn't kept him from surfing in Hawaii, skiing in Colorado, skydiving in Texas, running on post or working out at the gym.
Nor has it stopped him from pushing ahead with his Army career, one that started with his 2003 graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and could well have ended April 6, 2005, in Mosul, Iraq, when he faced down a car bomber from the hatch of his Stryker combat vehicle.
He had been hit by improvised explosive devices and seen the devastation of car bombs, "but I'd never been faced with yelling at a guy who blows himself up," said Smiley, 27.
When the car bomber detonated his payload just 30 yards in front of the Stryker, Smiley's eyes were destroyed, his left frontal lobe lacerated and the right side of his body paralyzed. The total loss of his eyesight appears to be the only lasting physical effect.
That moment - and his decision not to shoot the driver - would change his life forever.
"That's the hard thing about the war we're fighting over there," said Smiley, who was a platoon leader with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division.
"We're fighting civilians - all they have to do is drop their weapons and they're a civilian again."
The driver's behavior - and the visibly weighed-down vehicle he was driving - raise Smiley's suspicions. He yelled and fired two warning shots at the ground, but the driver behaved passively and even put his hands up as if surrendering.
"You can't just shoot someone because you think he's a bomber," said smiley. "He could have had a bunch of metal in the back of his car; he might have been from out of town and lost."
But he wasn't lost - and now Smiley knows that by taking the brunt of the car bomb's explosion, he saved the lives of other soldiers who might have been targeted down the road.
"I would have had a .50-cal blow his head off if I had known," Smiley said, crediting his shattered Oakley M Frame ballistic glasses with saving his life.
As for his continued good fortune, Smiley credits a higher source.
"I definitely believe God has been with me and blessed me beyond words. It's not a normal thing for a totally blind soldier to serve and to keep giving back to the Army," Smiley said.
Lt. Gen. Robert VanAntwerp, who nominated Smiley for Army Times Soldier of the Year, said of the captain, "There's no 'say no' in him. He wants to do it all. He's not daunted by the challenge. He loves soldiering," he said.
VanAntwerp paved the way for Smiley to spend a year with the Individual Training Assessment Team at U.S. Army Accessions Command, Fort Monroe, Va. There, he used a special computer and audio equipment he acquired through the Tricare system to do his work.
During his time at Accessions Command, he traveled around the Army to talk to both healthy and wounded soldiers about honor, duty service to country, and the value of staying in the Army to contribute hard-earned expertise. He, his wife Tiffany and their new baby, Grady, have since moved to North Carolina, where Smiley will pursue a master's degree in business administration from Duke University.
"He's an example for all soldiers. He has stepped up to make sure others don't fall behind," said Col. Mary Carstensen, director of the Army Wounded Warrior Program. Carstensen said Smiley is one of only 39 severely wounded soldiers who continue to serve on active duty.
"He challenges soldiers to stretch themselves and establish goals," she said.
His friends and family say Smiley's faith in God and lifelong determination have kept him steady.
Some call him a "stud" whose blindness "hasn't changed him in any way but to make him better."
"He's always been a strong kid, a man of character. He's my younger brother, but a brother I look up to in many ways," said Capt. Neal Smiley, a Special Forces soldier serving overseas.
After Duke University, the family will move to West Point, where Smiley will teach management and the philosophy of military leadership.