Woman won’t let plight get her down
By CATHY DYSON
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Friends say her battle scars made Leslie Smith who she is today, but people who don’t know the retired Army captain could scarcely guess at the horrible wounds she’s suffered.
Instead, they see an attractive brunette who glides to center stage, smiling all the while and wearing her signature high heels.
When the King George County resident shares her story, as she did at the 2008 Republican National Convention or on the set of the “Days of Our Lives” soap opera this year, audience members get a glimpse of the medical hell Smith has endured since she was in Bosnia 10 years ago.
And they are inspired.
Smith hasn’t just battled on, after losing a leg and then vision in both eyes, she’s done it with a smile on her face.
“I witnessed Leslie push on through so much, when so many others would have just given up,” said Mary Bryant of Achilles International, a group that brings sporting events to disabled people, including wounded warriors. “She does it with such charm and beauty and is an inspiration to all of us.”
‘I SURVIVED THIS’
Smith, now 43, was a public relations officer in Bosnia in 2002. She loved the people, who told her time and again how grateful they were for the American assistance. The countryside reminded her of Pennsylvania, where she lived as a child.
She was approved for a second tour of duty.
When she first felt a pain in her leg, she thought it was a pulled muscle. Tests showed she had a blood clot, and she was told to head stateside for treatment.
She argued with her commander, asking if she could go home with her division.
She didn’t want to be perceived “as the weak female soldier who couldn’t hang tough.”
Smith was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where doctors thought a rare blood disorder caused the clot.
A few weeks later, she started hemorrhaging in both legs, and her condition went downhill fast. She said her body was clotting itself to death.
She was put on a 24-hour death watch. Her parents were asked if they wanted to bury her at Arlington National Cemetery.
Doctors tried a last-ditch drug, which saved her life, but the damage had been done.
Her left leg was amputated below the knee, and the tissue loss to her thighs was ghastly. She jokes it looks like a shark visited—and stayed for lunch.
In her purse, she carries photos that show the bruising, swelling and scars at their worst.
“I guess it’s a testament that I survived this,” she said.
‘I REFUSE TO GIVE UP’
Smith’s ordeal didn’t end with the crisis in September 2002, when she was retired from service and classified as 100 percent disabled.
Again in 2005 and 2010, she began to hemorrhage, just as she did in her leg, except it happened in one eye and then the other.
Smith was left legally blind, though she still has a slit—thin as a pencil line—that she can see out of her right eye.
Her case baffled military and private doctors, who determined they don’t know what caused her condition. They say it’s possible she was exposed to a chemical agent or toxin in Bosnia.
Initially, Smith had a hard time grappling with an unknown poison lurking in her body, ready to strike again.
“But I’ve kind of come to terms with it,” she said. “We may never know what is.”
She also vowed that her nameless enemy won’t defeat her.
“I refuse to give up or give in to what’s happened,” she said.
‘THEY’LL BE OK’
Smith doesn’t want to give the impression that losing a leg was no big deal.
She was devastated. At one point, she thought she’d never leave the house again or forever wear snow pants to hide her loss.
Instead, she asked for a prosthetic leg that she could wear with high heels and practiced—and practiced—until she could walk with a seemingly perfect gait.
Early on in her recovery, she told her mother she’d always been the cheerleader. Her mother replied, “And now you can be the coach.”
Smith began to think it was meant to be for her to be in Bosnia and lose her leg when she did. She was one of two amputees in Walter Reed at first, but she was quickly followed by a wave of soldiers and Marines injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She became trained as a counselor. She wanted to help others with the same issues she faced.
Joe Bowser, an assistant to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon, remembers the first time he saw her.
“She was in a brown dress, walking around with a big smile on her face like she’s always got,” he said.
He didn’t know she was an amputee. Lots of veterans thought she was a social worker, and they didn’t want a candy bar, magazine or whatever else she was offering. And they certainly didn’t feel like talking.
Then Smith rolled up her pant leg, showed her prosthetic and said she was a soldier, too.
Just like that, the bond began.
“They weren’t going to let the female amputee outdo them,” Smith said. “When the newly injured came in and saw others doing things, it gave them inspiration and the knowledge they’ll be OK.”
‘LIKE MISS AMERICA’
Smith started doing sports events she’d never done before, like marathons, and with her background in public relations, she was well-suited to handle the publicity that came with the events.
She started becoming a spokeswoman for wounded warriors, especially with groups like Achilles International and American Veterans Disabled for Life.
Bowser, a soldier who lost his leg in 2004 when a rocket exploded on his camp in Iraq, remembers completing the New York City Marathon with Smith.
Both were on three-wheeled bikes and used their hands to crank the wheels. Like most racers, Bowser crossed the finish line as quickly as he could.
Then, he looked back to find Smith. He saw her among the throngs of spectators, smiling, talking and asking everyone how they were doing.
“I look up and there she is, on the sidewalk, waving like Miss America,” he said. “I told her, ‘You realize the object of this thing is to shorten the time, not lengthen it.’ It just really cracked me up, she was hilarious.”
Smith did a 60-mile bike ride through Washington and a hunting trip in Colorado. She was gearing up to try paraplegic volleyball before her vision loss.
Her living room is filled with photos of her with dignitaries, including the younger President Bush and President Obama, as well as Gary Sinise, the actor who has been an advocate for veterans since he played Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump.”
Smith and Sinise have worked together for five years to create a memorial in Washington for disabled veterans.
‘A LASTING IMPRESSION’
Smith’s options are more limited after her vision loss, but as she’s regained her strength from the last episode, she’s focused more on public speaking than sporting events.
Offers have snowballed.
She’s done fashion shows featuring amputees, an episode of “Project Runway” for female veterans public-service announcements for Toyota as well as Canines for Veterans.
That’s the group that provided her with her service dog, Isaac, her “best friend” for almost three years. Isaac was rescued from a shelter, trained by Marines serving time in military jail, then awarded to veterans.
Smith believes Isaac got a second chance, like she did.
As long as she’s able, Smith will travel the country to speak wherever she’s invited. She recently visited Cincinnati, where she was recognized by the USO, an organization that provides programs and entertainment to U.S. troops.
“Leslie has a way of energizing everyone lucky enough to be in a room with her,” said Anne Kereiakes, co-chairwoman of the Cincinnati event. “She leaves a lasting impression.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425