As a former teacher, preacher, and police chief, Anthony Smith lived to serve others. So when his National Guard unit was sent to Iraq in 2003, Smith took it in stride, until a rocket-propelled grenade hit and nearly killed him. The strike left the U.S. Army major with multiple injuries, including the loss of his right arm below the elbow, a broken jaw, impaired vision and hearing, a damaged kidney, and spinal cord injuries.
“It’s a shock when you wake up and don’t have an arm, and they’re telling you you’ll never walk again,” says Smith, who spent 18 months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and three months at the Memphis VA Medical Center in Tennessee. Smith’s injuries made him wonder about his life’s purpose: “When you get injured and you’ve been doing all that service, your mind thinks, ‘How am I going to help people when I can’t even help myself?’”
It’s not unusual for people to lose their sense of purpose or direction when they equate it with a particular profession or role in life, says Cheryl Davis Jordan, a leadership development coach and owner of Color Outside the Lines in Fort Washington, Maryland. However, your true purpose is a reflection of your inner gifts and qualities, she asserts. “Once you know what your gifts are, you can apply them to any situation.”
It took three years for Smith to recover, after which he briefly returned to work on the police force. It didn’t last, Smith believes, because “they didn’t think I could do the job.” The loss, however, led to a turning point for him. He channeled his frustration into making his body stronger through martial arts, which he’d loved as a child. “Martial arts teach you that the inner man is always stronger than the outer man,” says Smith, now 44. “I figured if I got back into martial arts, it would give me the strength I needed.” Smith figured right.
A trainer with Operation Rebound (www.operationrebound.org), a San Diego-based organization that provides athletic opportunities to veterans who’ve suffered permanent physical injuries, helped him condition himself inside and out, enough that Smith eventually competed in several triathlons and Ironman-like competitions (in which competitors swim, bike, and run—because Smith was directly hit in his hip, someone else runs for him, though he does run shorter distances on his own). During the competitions, Smith couldn’t help noticing that people, especially youngsters, with all types of disabilities were taking part. He decided he would serve others again, this time as a martial arts instructor.