Blind War Veteran Enjoys View from the Top

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

STERLING, Va., Feb. 5, 2007 - At the Sport Rock Indoor Climbing Center here, a sign warns that climbing can cause serious injury. If Army Capt. Scott Smiley could see the cautionary sign, he would probably disregard it.

"I know I've done more dangerous things than this," Smiley said Feb. 2 from the base of the 50-feet-tall rock he prepared to climb.

In April 2005, Smiley's 25th Infantry Division platoon was patrolling Mosul, Iraq, for suicide car bombs when the soldiers saw a suspicious vehicle on the road.

"He was facing west, and I was headed north when I saw him. I stopped in my Stryker vehicle and yelled at him to get out of his car to interrogate him," Smiley recalled.

"You don't know if they're bad or good," he said. "The shocks could have been out in the back of his car."

But Smiley's initial suspicion was correct. The driver was a suicide bomber.

"He raised his hands," Smiley said, "and then he blew up."

The blast sent shrapnel into Smiley's eyes and brain, leaving him permanently blind.

Smiley, who's assigned to the office of the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, now wears prosthetic blue eyes. He is one of six wounded Iraq war veterans that Disabled Sports USA and Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports brought here to transcend their disabilities and climb toward recovery.

Disabled Sports USA and Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project are partners in the Defense Department's America Supports You program. The program highlights activities, grassroots groups, corporations and private citizens are doing to support the men and women in uniform.

"With other climbers, they can look ahead and predict where their body needs to be to reach the next hold," Jeremy Hardin, director of route setting, said. "But he takes it step by step. Where we break it down into to two or three steps, he's got to break it into 10."

Smiley stands on the padded floor while his climbing guide, Ocean Eiler, describes the craggy wall in front of them.

"I try to give him the best reference points I can, but a lot of it is a very tactile event," Eiler said. "I'm really just throwing him on the rock."

Eiler feeds the safety rope through Smiley's harness and ties two figure-8 knots. Smiley pours a small mound of chalk into his palm, and a white cloud erupts when he claps his hands together.

Smiley holds on to Eiler's elbow, and the two men walk slowly toward the bumpy surface. Rocks jutting out from the wall - called holds - are color-coded so climbers can mentally map their route.

When asked what he's picturing in his mind, Smiley jokes, "A big rock with no place to hold on."

"Belay," Eiler says, indicating to Smiley that he's ready for the soldier to beginning climbing.

"Climbing," he replies.

Smiley slides his chalky palm across wall until he finds a hold and wraps his fingers around it. He hoists himself off the floor mat.

"You've got something over to your right by about two feet," Eiler says. "Up, up, up, up."

Smiley's foot rubs blindly against the wall to his right. The hold lies just out of his climbing shoe's reach.

"Actually, that's not going to help you much," Eiler says after Smiley makes several unsuccessful leg sweeps. "Go straight up. There you go. Come over to this other wall. Come a little bit more with your left. ... So close. Come out toward me; come toward the voice."

Smiley follows Eiler's instructions until he has ascended higher than the range of Eiler's audio map.

As Smiley zigzags steadily toward the top, a small group gathers at the rock base. Eiler's instructions are drowned out by cheering, and he joins the crowd, shouting encouraging words toward the apex, "Get that foot on it, come on. Come on. Good job on that inside edge. Commit to it. Big left foot."

Smiley reaches the top of the wall, and the crowd erupts. Voices from below guide his hand toward a cowbell hanging within reach, and the mallet slaps against the cast-metal bell as clanging from the rock top mixes with the echo of applause and cheers from below.

Back on the ground, Smiley said the climb embodied positive effects of emotional and physical recovery.

"That's something big with rehabilitation," he said, "getting back to normal and getting your body to do things that you were able to do before, and sometimes doing it even better."

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