Written by Tricia Johnson
In 2010, Army Captain Scotty Smiley, with Doug Crandall, wrote Hope Unseen, which received wide acclaim from renowned folks like the Honorable Bob Dole, Franklin Graham, and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The book is a love story, an action adventure, about a deeply devoted couple who faced an unexpected, life-changing experience with extraordinary resolve. But love wasn’t the only thread that held them together. Something even more powerful gave them hope: their belief that God was guiding them every moment of every day.
You cry, you smile, you marvel at the courage each of them demonstrates. You feel like you know them. You root for them. Yet you still can’t wrap your mind around the fact that the last time Scotty saw his wife Tiffany’s face was March 17, 2005.
Their powerful story continues beyond the book.
Tiffany Smiley, Scotty’s steadfast champion, reminisces. “People were doubting him. They werec naysayers,” she says about her husband Scotty, whose life was changed forever by the injury he sustained while serving in Iraq.
On April 5th, 2005, then-Lt Scotty Smiley—the 6’2”, fit, handsome young man who married his dream girl, who reached his childhood goal to graduate from West Point, who was called “the Oak” for his steadfast resolve—was leading his soldiers on the dusty streets of Mosul in his Stryker when he locked eyes with a driver just seconds before the driver detonated a car bomb and shattered the Smileys’ picture-perfect life.
Doctors fought hard to save Scotty’s life, but they could not save his eyes. He was thrown into darkness without any hope of regaining his sight. The ensuing road to recovery was riddled with obstacles.
Scotty slid into a deep depression. For the first time in his life, he started to question his faith, and he felt like he was internally crumbling.
His life wasn’t the only life that dramatically changed that day. “My life was blown in a million pieces,” says Tiffany. “I went to the hospital every day, not knowing what the future would look like.”
According to the Office of Public Health of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), one of the most common (but least publicized) types of combat injury in Iraq and Afghanistan is eye trauma, primarily resulting from improvised explosive devices and other blasts. From Oct. 1, 2001, through Dec. 31, 2011, a total of 97,600 new veterans with military-related eye injuries entered the VA health system. Out of those, 4,154 service members were at very high risk of eventual blindness as a result of blast-related eye injuries.
“I felt like I did not deserve the hand that was dealt to me,” says Scotty, who spent a very long time in Walter Reed with just three-quarters of a skull. “I could not imagine going through it without Tiffany,” he confesses.
“I heard all those sentiments. People saying it’s a shame what happened to Scotty. I lost something, too. My eyes in a way, too,” says Tiffany.
“I felt like the Spartan at the door,” admits Tiffany. “All we heard is what you can’t do.” But Tiffany believed anything was possible and refused to sign the papers that would have put an end to Scotty’s Army career.
“Tiffany would throw a hand grenade to get something done,” laughs Scotty. Her willfulness and her refusal to sign his discharge papers paid off, and the Army found a way to keep Scotty.
“I still had a desire to serve, but I realized it wasn’t just me serving,” says Scotty.
“There’s got to be a way we can be better at this,” says Tiffany. “The process is so broken.” She feels strongly that injured Soldiers are not being addressed as well as they could be.
“Our approach is absolutely wrong,” she says emphatically.
Scotty, a tried and true leader in typical “Oak” style, credits the team he had around him for his ability to recover. Not only did his wife persevere, but his family and friends also rallied around him, and Army leaders helped find a way to keep him in uniform.
“We had a team,” says Scotty. “We fail when we try to do it all alone.”
Tiffany agrees. “Scotty and I live by the motto, ‘In extreme circumstances, look at what you do have, not at what you don’t. It can be life changing.’”
This attitude was life changing for Scotty. He realized he still had his athletic ability, his passion for adventure, his love of life, his faith in God, and a woman who loved him completely. He was no longer content to lay in a hospital bed. Just seven months after he lost his eyesight he was surfing on the North Shore in Oahu, and he continued to rack up experiences that would be challenging even for people with vision.
He went skydiving with the Army’s Golden Knights, won an ESPY as Best Outdoor Athlete, climbed Mount Rainier, went wakeboarding, earned an MBA at Duke, taught leadership at West Point, won the MacArthur Leadership Award, and, as a newly minted Captain, was awarded the Purple Heart. And he wrote a book.
“God only puts on our shoulder what we can carry,” says Scotty.
Tiffany, who grew up as a fierce competitor, reluctant to share the ball with anyone when she was on the soccer field or basketball court, was facing her own challenges.
“Everyone expected Scotty to go through a grieving process, but they didn’t recognize I was grieving, too. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she confesses.
As her grieving process commenced, Scotty resolved to stand by Tiffany in the same way she stood by him: “I want to be by her side. It’s me, understanding what she needs and meeting her emotional needs, as she did for me earlier.”
Scotty’s powerful story puts him in high demand as a speaker. Yet—after all he has been through—he insists that public speaking is terrifying. Tiffany encourages him to accept the invitations to speak.“ They rarely get persons that share intimate feelings,” she says about Scotty’s willingness to share his very personal story.
Despite labeling himself an awkward, uncomfortable speaker, Scotty’s vision is clear.
“Sharing our feelings, love, desire, fear, is very difficult. Part of recovery is acceptance. You have to share,” says Scotty. “I came to the conclusion, if it’s a calling then boldly accept it,” he declares. “Give people joy.”
The Smileys, who are the proud parents of three young boys, are clearly on a strikingly similar mission. “The beauty of Scotty’s story is he leaves them with a gift,” says Tiffany.
It’s the same gift of hope, determination, and the belief he shares with his wife that the sky is the limit.
“Every morning I wake up, I am happy to be living. I ask myself, what am I able to do today? If I lived in regret, I wouldn’t be able to live life,” says Scotty.
It has been a long, arduous journey, but every twist and turn paved the way for both of them to find a platform to support military families, share their faith, and, more broadly, inspire people to overcome adversity.
Tiffany refuses to let the explosion in Iraq that caused her husband’s blindness to dictate the rest of their lives. She has been strategically putting the pieces back together so that she can have a positive impact on the lives of other military families.
“I went for a long two years of, ‘Who the heck am I?’” confesses Tiffany, who looks at the experience as a call to action. She now lends her voice to speak on behalf of military families and considers it a deep honor. She even found herself in the White House meeting with the President of the United States.
“This is my duty, my obligation to the country,” says Tiffany.
Scotty’s self-proclaimed “cheesy grin”—visible to everyone he meets—is an endearing symbol of hope for all injured military struggling to put their life back together.
“We don’t have limits. I don’t have to live in this box. I hope our story and journey is an example of that,” says Scotty.