Long before "girl power" was in vogue and Beyonce had added her voice to the mix, one young woman was already learning what it took to be strong.
"I was a tomboy farm girl, I guess," Tiffany Smiley said as she reminisced about growing up north of Pasco, Wash., miles from town, and often sporting bows and ribbons in her hair. "Those country girl experiences shaped my toughness. If you got bucked off your horse, you had to get back on. And if your steer kicked you in the leg, you still had to go back out and keep working to train him properly."
Little did Tiffany realize during her teen and college years how courage and determination would play out in the days ahead. America was at peace and the future beckoned. In time, there would be a fiance on her arm and a registered nursing degree in her pocket.
"It was like this picture of the American dream," she said, thinking back to that idyllic period while husband-to-be Scott prepared at West Point and she studied at Whitworth College.
"Here he's going to be this military academy graduate and he's marrying this nurse, and the future is going to be bright, and our new last name is Smiley. Oh, it's just wonderful!" she said in a lilting voice.
But before the marriage vows could even be rehearsed, the picture changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. homeland was attacked. In a changed world, Scott and Tiffany both went on to complete their education. But their "perfect" life together had shifted, too. Within six months of their wedding, Scott was deployed to Iraq.
It wasn't the life Tiffany had expected, but she powered through her feelings of disappointment.
"I sort of felt like this isn't fair, that this isn't the future I thought we were going to have," Tiffany said, reflecting on the heart-to-heart talk she and her husband had before he left, how her support was key to his success. "In that moment I realized, 'Oh wow, I'm serving too. This is my sacrifice as well.' "
Initially thrown by the turn of events, Tiffany now felt ready to ride out whatever came during Scott's 2004 deployment in Iraq. But no one could see ahead to what that sacrifice would look like until one night when her world went dark.
The devastating news came on April 6, 2005, with a single phone call from her husband's commanding officer.
"He told me, 'Scotty has been hurt really bad. He came face to face with this suicide car bomb. There's shrapnel in his eyes, and I don't even know if he's going to survive.' "
Remembering how that strong leader broke down emotionally during the call, Tiffany knew in an instant that their lives had changed forever. For five excruciating days there was nothing she could do but wait -- and pray. During that time, her wounded spirit desperately needed reassurance.
"I remember sort of wrestling with God a little bit, like, 'I'm not OK with this and I don't know if it's going to be OK," Tiffany said, recalling the angst she felt ... until a quiet answer spoke to her heart. "I just had this peace come over me -- like it's going to be OK -- and the thought, 'Whether he lives or whether he dies, it's all for My purpose.' "
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Feeling empowered, the young wife flew to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. to be at Scott's side, and later having the fortitude to refuse signing her husband's retirement papers -- totally bucking some advisors and refusing to listen to doctors about his dismal future.
"The doctors told me, 'He is blind. He doesn't have both of his eyes, Mrs. Smiley. He's never going to serve in the military. No one has ever done that,' " Tiffany said, repeating their harsh words and her rebuttal. "I don't care! I have something bigger going on here."
In the depths of her soul she held the image of the capable military leader her husband was ... and would be again.
"I knew he'd need purpose and healing, and I started advocating for all that. I just had this vision for him that he was going to do something," Tiffany said, remembering how her strong conviction kept her moving forward. "So, every day I would speak life into him and speak truth into him. And when people tried to speak something differently, I would say, 'He's going to be a leader!' and I genuinely believed that with all of my heart."
The path to recovery has been long for these high school sweethearts, but true to Tiffany's vision and unfaltering love, Major Scott Smiley became the first blind U.S. Army officer serving in active duty and a company commander; he earned an MBA from Duke University, authored Hope Unseen, and has challenged himself athletically -- everything from skydiving to an Iron Man competition. He retired in 2015 from military service as an ROTC instructor at Gonzaga University.
The couple travel to speaking engagements -- Tiffany herself now at the forefront of encouraging and empowering women -- helping others see there is hope and life on the other side of any struggle.
"I sort of pulled up my boot straps and was like, OK, this is the journey, this is the path and I'm going to have to walk it," Tiffany said thoughtfully about the past 13 years. "I'm going to have to show up every single day."
Call it "girl power" connected to God's power.
(Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, "Light Bringer." If you have a story idea for Light Notes, contact her at email@example.com.)
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