Captain Scotty Smiley made American history while serving in the military. The book Hope Unseen: The Story of the U.S. Army's First Blind Active-Duty Officer tells his story. This book excerpt comes from chapter 8.
I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.
Just a few minutes into his meet-and-greets with shopkeepers, Jeff Van Antwerp heard the world explode, a blast so loud he told me it sounded as if it could have come from the building next door. The Opel and its driver disintegrated into a million pieces. A small chunk of shrapnel took a direct path to my head, obliterating my Oakleys and dissecting my left eyeball like a blade slicing through a grape. The metal debris continued straight forward, completely through the retina, and penetrated the front portion of my brain. Inside my skull, another tiny piece of metal, the size of a deer tick, took a sharp turn, skipped across the back side of my nasal cavity, and shredded the optical nerves and fibers on the right half of my face. My body recoiled, lurched forward, and then dangled from the turret. A puff of smoke rose from the corner of Tampa and Porsche as my world went forever black.
Jeff has shared with me many times what happened next. He abandoned his conversations and sprinted back to his Stryker, where Sergeant Loepfe gave him the news: “Two-one has been hit.”
(“Two-one” was the call sign for my Stryker vehicle.) In an act of expediency, Captain Van Antwerp ignored his own Route Tampa warnings and navigated the most direct route to our location, pushing his vehicle to its sixty-mile-per-hour limit. He arrived to see a smoking crater where the Opel once sat. Car pieces littered the ground. One of my squad leaders had been knocked unconscious and our machine gunner had taken some shrapnel to the head—but my injuries appeared to be the most serious. As my apparently lifeless body hung from the turret, my equipment vest snagged on a piece of metal, blood pooled below my feet on the floor of the Stryker.
Fellow crew members, noticing the bloody mess on the right side of my face, screamed for assistance. They unhooked my vest from the turret, moved me away from the Stryker, and bandaged my head— mummifying me for protection. My pulse was faint. I was hanging on to life as my platoon mates loaded me up for transportation to an aid station.
Jeff jumped into the medical evacuation vehicle with me. The ambulance sped to a combat support hospital, where doctors rushed me to a CAT scan machine to examine my head. As my body disappeared behind a pair of swinging doors, Captain Van says, he fell to his knees. Casting aside inhibition in the middle of the hallway, with doctors and nurses scurrying around him, he cried out in agony. He prayed with abandon, yelling out to God, begging Him to spare my life. “People were asking me if I was okay,” Jeff said later. “At that point, was I supposed to be the strong commander? Whatever. I was broken.”
A surgeon emerged from behind the two doors, walked forward, and planted himself in front of Jeff. Captain Van rose to his feet, rubbed his eyes, and focused on the doctor. A squad of my soldiers stood behind Jeff, wondering if I was going to make it. I had been slipping toward death, and doctors were using drugs to keep my heart rate up. As Jeff remembers it, the doctor, bereft of emotion perhaps due to daily exposure to death and destruction, said, “Well, doesn’t look good. Most likely he’ll lose both his eyes, and he’s got shrapnel lodged in his frontal lobe.” Then the doctor turned and walked away.
Jeff spun, slammed through a swinging door, and slumped into a heap outside the hospital’s front door. With his back against the exterior of the building and his head between his knees, Jeff says, he thought about Tiffany. He would be calling her soon, calling her before someone else she didn’t know could deliver news she did not want to hear.
Jeff clinched his fists and closed his eyes. We were the closest of friends. We loved each other. Captain Van Antwerp acknowledges the cultural prohibition on such fraternal commander-and-platoonleader closeness. But we had connected instantly when we lived as neighbors in Dupont, Washington. He never thought he would be my commander, but even after Ahmed Said changed all that, Jeff’s friendship with me didn’t impact our professional relationship. It was a non-issue with the other officers in the company, because Jeff loved all his soldiers. Everyone was his favorite.
But now, as he sat in the dust while I was reeling inside, sightless and clinging to life, it was Jeff’s love for me as his friend that poured out. We had worked out together every single day in Iraq, pushed each other to extreme physical limits—one more rep, one more crunch, one more mile. When we could spare a moment, Jeff, Dave Webb, and I would square off in testosterone-filled combative bouts, reminiscent of sixth-graders using one another as Play-Doh in their parents’ basement.
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