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Honorary grand marshal is an inspiration

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Retired Army Capt. Leslie Smith

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By Sally Voth - svoth@nvdaily.com

Retired Army Capt. Leslie Smith isn't such a joyful person in spite of losing a leg and being nearly completely blind. She is that way because of those handicaps.

She returned to Winchester this week -- for the first time since her family moved from the city nearly four decades ago -- as the honorary grand marshal of the 85th annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.

"I've always considered myself a Virginia girl," Smith shared.

Returning for the festival, "is like coming home."

She went to Marymount University in Arlington, and while there was in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps. A communications graduate, Smith was serving in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer in Bosnia in 2001-2002.

"[I] actually loved the mission so much I wanted to stay for a second tour," she said.

However, before that could happen, she developed a blood clot in her leg, was returned to the U.S. and taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Thank goodness they did, because everything just spiraled down from there," Smith said.

With a serious blood infection, she was placed on imminent death status for 24 hours, and her family was brought in to say good-bye.

"I was at the end of the line at that point," Smith said.

While doctors -- who she praised -- were able to save her life, they weren't able to save her left leg, and it was amputated below the knee. Since then, the infection, which remains in her body, has progressively robbed her of her eyesight. Smith is legally blind.

Smith, who lives in King George County, said doctors have attributed her health problems to a chemical agent or toxin that must have gotten into her system and triggered bleeding in her legs and behind her eyes.

She has a service dog, Issac, who was rescued from a shelter, and trained by Marines in the brig in Charleston, before coming to her through the Canines for Veterans program. Everyone from Issac, to the Marines, to Smith has benefited as a result, she noted.

"He's changed everything for me," she said. "He's just incredible with the freedom he's given me back."

With Issac accompanying her, Smith is less apprehensive about venturing among the public.

"He's very smart, very intuitive, and he has picked up already the fact that I have increased vision loss," she said.

To look at Smith, it's hard to tell she is mostly blind. Her warm chestnut-brown eyes track whoever is speaking and are beautifully made up. Likewise, her hair is perfectly highlighted and styled. Smith does both her own hair and makeup.

When she lost her leg, Smith's first question was would she ever again be able to wear heels.

"Your willpower, your fight to get back to normal kicks in," she said.

When her vision became impaired, Smith said, "My first thought was how am I going to do my hair and makeup. You figure it out. You find ways."

Practice, patience and magnification mirrors are all part of her beauty arsenal.

Smith, 42, is active in supporting other wounded warriors, and is an Amputee Coalition of America peer counselor, runs marathons and is involved with the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military Program, among other pursuits, according to the Apple Blossom website.

Just recently, Smith said, she got on a bike for the first time since her disability. She took part in the Wounded Warrior Project bike ride through Washington DC, pedaling on a tandem bicycle.

"I never even thought about riding a bike," Smith said. "It was very encouraging, very uplifting in the sense [of] OK, I can do this. I try to continue to challenge myself with trying new things."

Participating in Apple Blossom activities has been "uplifting."

"It teaches you there's so much more to live for," Smith said. "I try to stay fairly active with other returning wounded military. It's very healing yet for me."

Life has given her a new duty since she can no longer serve active military.

"I have even a greater mission now and that's helping others," Smith said. "No matter what the challenge is, everybody has some form of challenge. If you can just make the best of it and turn it into more a positive way of thinking, you will just be amazed with the fortitude and the inner strength that everyone of us has.

"I feel honestly that each physical piece that I have lost, my inner peace, my inner happiness and strength, confidence, zest for life, empowerment, has just grown so much. It's very rewarding and very satisfying to me with everything that I have been through to have come to that point."

Smith wants to share that strength and empowerment with others, and if she encourages just one person, it's all been worth it, she said.

"You can still have a very full life even with vision loss," she said. "In fact, all of this just really makes you want to do more because when you have a second chance, you find you want to try everything. Every morning, I have that motivation to get up. What can I do to make a difference, or try something new?"

And, if she could go back in time and reverse her life-changing illness, Smith wouldn't.

She paused when asked what she thought her life would've been like were it not for the blood infection.

"I don't think I would've been as happy because I think I would've been too caught up in the everyday grind of everyday life," Smith said. "I feel like everything that happened has been a gift. But, that doesn't happen overnight. There's still the process, the ups and downs with it."

Her military training kicked in when the infection took hold, and after.

And while she wasn't a bad person when her body was whole, "I just like who I am better now," Smith said. "Even though life has not been easy."

Being among the people of Winchester is also therapeutic.

"They're gracious and they're very welcoming, and making sure that we're OK -- me and Issac," Smith said. "It's just very reassuring and wonderful to be welcomed with open arms. It's kind of how, you know, when people don't give up on you, you don't want to give up because they're fighting for you, too, and supporting you. It's hard to just say, I quit, because there's too many people still cheering you on, and you want to do your best for them."

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