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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.

And he stayed in the Army–helping others drive an evolution in military policy that is beginning to regard the wounded soldier not as a limited resouce to be jettisoned but as someone uniquely prepared to serve the mission in other capacities.

One year after his injury, Smiley was assigned to Army Accessions Command, helping to prepare new soldiers and their families for the transition from civilian to military life. Now he is obtaining his MBA from Duke University in preparation for a career as a professor at West Point. If he makes it to the top of the mountain tomorrow, he will have to hustle back down, because on the following evening he is due in Washington, D.C., to be recognized as the Army Times Soldier of the Year.

Ed Salau and Scott Smiley have come to the mountain hoping other soldiers will follow. Smiley is here at the behest of Micah Clark, executive director of Camp Patriot, a nascent nonprofit intended to arrange for volunteer guides to take disabled veterans on outdoor adventures, and Salau is representing the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), an organization he first encountered when representatives delivered a backpack of toiletries to him bedside at Walter Reed. Five weeks later, they took him downhill skiing. “I didn’t even have my prosthetic leg yet, and I was going fast,” he says. “My kids looked at me and they were thinking, ‘Hey, Dad’s back!'”

A New Jersey native, Salau went straight into the Marine Corps after graduating in the bottom five percent of his high school class, completing boot camp 21 days before his 18th birthday. His service earned him a college education, and he found work as an occupational safety and health specialist. The position was still waiting for him when he returned from Iraq. “I stayed on for a while,” he says, “but after the the combat and rehab, the desk job wasn’t a good fit.” In February 2006, he joined the staff of WWP, where his responsibilities include management of an adaptive sports program for wounded soldiers.

The point, he says, is not just to take veterans on a hike, but to help them re-engage the world. “I lost a leg, but I had an MBA and a job. I kept thinking of all these kids in my command, 19-year-olds who came straight from some small town or inner city, often from difficult circumstances, without the best academic background. They don’t know what they’re capable of in the first place; then they get hurt and suddenly they’re back home looking in the mirror thinking they are less of a person. That’s why I go to work.”

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