ELEVEN YEARS AFTER MOSUL
“Many of us go through hardships and struggles in life, but it’s about what you do after those struggles.”
Back then he was a first lieutenant with Alpha Company of the U.S. Army and led a 45-man, 8-Stryker vehicle platoon in Mosul, Iraq. Assigned to help secure and rebuild the city after the U.S.-led invasion, most of his time was spent training Iraqi police, and helping civilians by providing food, electricity and gasoline.
But on April 6, 2004, his unit was ordered to locate a vehicle loaded with explosives in the two-million-person city. The afternoon sun beat its 90-degree heat onto the Stryker that day as he wove through the dusty, unkept streets.
Near a small marketplace, he noticed a silver Opel sedan with its rear bumper strangely low to the ground.
“That could mean two things,” he explained. “It could be that the shocks and suspension are out or that there’s something heavy in there.”
With his Stryker parked 30 yards away from the sedan, Smiley went to the turret and told the driver to exit the vehicle. He watched as the driver raised his hands from the steering wheel and glanced over his shoulder before shaking his head.
Smiley repeated the command and watched as the driver shook his head once again before releasing the brake on the sedan and pulling forward. In response, Smiley fired two warning shots into the ground with his M4 rifle before it all went black.
The driver had set off the bomb, disintegrating the sedan and sending pieces of shrapnel through both of Smiley’s eyes, blinding him. One piece lodged in the left frontal lobe of his brain, and the other cut through his optic nerve.
The Black Hole
“I woke up a week-and-a-half later at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) with my wife by my bedside and my world drastically changed,” he said.
Though he couldn’t ignore that he was blind and temporarily half paralyzed, his injuries didn’t seem real until the Purple Heart arrived a few days later.
“It was a true realization to me that ‘You are injured, this really did happen to you, and you will not be able to see again,’” he said. “It was hard because there was a huge fear that I couldn’t do anything I had done once before, that I was not going to be able to take care of myself, that I was not going to be able to take care of my wife. How was I going to live my life? … It was absolute fear.”
For 10 days, he fell into a “black hole of depression,” as his career as an Army Ranger disappeared along with his sight.
“I was raised as a Christian. I believed in God. I was reading through my Bible in Iraq. I felt like I was a good guy, like I did not deserve anything that happened,” Smiley explained. “So I rejected God.”
But after coming in contact with fellow soldiers, whose bodies were permanently altered by the war, he realized this common feeling of anger and depression among the injured did little more than further harm their lives. He didn’t want that to happen to him.
The first step, he decided, was to get out of bed and take a shower. Then, he asked God to forgive him for his rejection, beginning the lifelong task of rebuilding his relationship with God and forgiving the suicide bomber.
“In the Bible, God says, ‘Forgive your brother just as Christ has forgiven you,’ (Colossians 3:13),” he explained. “I knew forgiveness was part of my mental, physical and emotional health. If I never forgave the man who made me live this life—who doesn’t allow me to see my wife and makes me take cabs everywhere—that there would always be anger and animosity … and I knew that to ask God to forgive me, to live a life of happiness and joy, I had to forgive the man who blew me up.”
He laughs easily while on the phone with me for this story, taking my call while also making pancakes for his three kids.
A lot has happened over the last 11 years. He now serves as a professor of Military Science in the ROTC department at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and trains at a local CrossFit affiliate. He intends to climb the 20,300-foot Mount McKinley someday and complete an Ironman, and day by day at CrossFit Dūrātus he comes closer to achieving those goals.
The camaraderie amongst the members of the affiliate suits him—it reminds him of being around soldiers.
“Everyone is pushing you to accomplish a goal, and it’s about teamwork and friendship … I love that,” he said.
Knowing that would be a big part of the Open, he signed up for the first time this year.
Over the weekend, he completed the scaled version of the triplet (15.1), holding onto the crook of a friend’s arm to get from the pull-up rig to the barbell each round. When the clock hit 9 minutes, he had completed 5 rounds.
Feeling his barbell at his shin, Smiley listened as his judge told him where to find the right plates for the 1-rep-max clean and jerk. He was nervous about this part of the workout since he has rarely moved heavy loads since he went blind.
To his surprise, 105 lb. went up easily. So did his goal weight of 135 lb.
Feeling good, he added 15-lb. plates to either side of the barbell and attempted 165 lb. before the 6-minute time cap. He got it overhead.
His coach Kevin Longmeier looked on with pride.
“It would be easy (for Smiley) to skip the Open; he has all the excuses in the world not to participate,” Longmeier said. “But he is always looking for ways to push the margins of his experience. He wants to try new things and overcome new challenges. I’m proud of him for always showing up and for his unwillingness to let the fact that he might fail hold him back.”
Smiley has made it his mission to post a score every week of the Open. To him, it’s not about where he ends up on the leaderboard.
“It’s about living life to its fullest,” he said. “Many of us go through hardships and struggles in life, but it’s about what you do after those struggles … all you have to do is step out of your comfort zone and try.”
Tune in tonight to games.crossfit.com and watch these two amazing ladies do 15.2 | March 5 | Letendre vs. Bridgers | CrossFit Jääkarhu | Austin, Texas