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Shock And Awe

You think climbing Rainier is tough? Try it blind. Or with one leg. Then see who you pity.

But right here in the moment, he cannot lie. He is not happy. That is why he has taken himself away from the group to stare off at the foothills of eastern Washington, to watch them go orange as the day fades. He has walked away from the tents a good distance. His back is turned to the campsite. He holds himself ramrod straight between the crutches, and he wishes he were somewhere else.

He feels, he says, like the last kid picked.

Down among the tents, Captain Scott Smiley is trying to rest. He is propped against a backpack, awaiting supper. Smiley is a big man, broad-shouldered, with the reasonable musculature of a pre-steroidal tight end. His catalog-worthy features–bold but proportionate nose, wide cheekbones, and a solid outcropping of jaw–are nicely normalized by a grin just crooked enough and ears just jug enough to cast him as a corn-fed kid. In the fading sunlight, Smiley has yet to remove his sunglasses, and they conceal the most striking feature of all: two luminous blue eyes. Smiley is a decorated soldier whose war experience has received a lot of press coverage, and invariably the photographers focus on those beautiful eyes. The eyes are not real. Smiley wears them as much for us as for himself. When he steps off toward the mountaintop tonight it will be dark, but Smiley has grown used to dark. In 2005, while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, Smiley spotted a car that squatted low to the ground. The driver was motionless behind the wheel. Suspecting the car was loaded with explosives, Smiley considered shooting him, but nothing is certain, so he hollered and fired warning shots. “The driver slowly raised both hands,” says Smiley, “and then the car just disappeared.” Shrapnel drove into Smiley’s head. One eye was gone, and the other was blinded. The right side of his body was paralyzed. The medics who took him in figured he wouldn’t make it. He was still in his hospital bed when a social worker suggested his wife should sign the papers necessary to have him discharged. She refused.

Rehabilitation commenced almost immediately. Over time, the paralysis receded. He learned to walk again. He carried a piece of his skull around in his abdomen while his brain mended, only to see the bone discarded and the gap filled with acrylic. He hoped his right eye might be repaired, but it didn’t happen. He set about learning Braille and how to walk with a white stick.

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