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MELBOURNE, FLA. — — Robert Smith was on foot patrol as a Marine in Fallujah in May 2008 — suddenly, a roadside bomb exploded. It was a hasty ambush, followed by small arms fire.
He woke up in a hospital, one leg amputated above the knee.
He spent a year in physical therapy at a hospital in Washington before coming home to Brevard County. He got his associate degree, and began pursuing his bachelor’s, but Smith got bored.
Growing up, he had dreamed of being a police officer and went into the military to move toward that goal.
He joined the Marine Corps. He was deployed to Iraq twice; the second time was when he came home hurt. Smith has a tattoo on his right forearm memorializing a lance corporal who died after the ambush: boots, an M-16, a helmet, “all gave some, some gave all,” in front of a U.S. flag backdrop.
He had long thought about law enforcement, and considered taking a desk job. He heard success stories of other amputees — guys with injuries like his who stayed in the military. One was a special forces operator.
“I was like, man, if he's still doing this job, there's no reason why I can't try to go do mine,” Smith said.
At first he was worried about running. Losing any limb will leave someone slower than they were, but there are Olympic runners who are faster than some people with two legs.
“There’s really just no excuse not to continue on with what you want to do.”
He met with Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who told him if he could pass police academy and the BCSO physical test, he'd have a chance at becoming a deputy. He graduated from Eastern Florida State College. He finished the physical test — which includes a 400-yard run, hurdles, low crawls, and dragging a 150-pound mannequin 40 yards — in under four minutes, according to a post Ivey made on Facebook.
Smith was sworn in earlier this month. After he completes training, he’ll be on road patrol.
Smith played football and wrestled at Cocoa High School, and he still has the physique. The prosthetic leg has affected his gait, but the 5-foot-8, 220-pound former Marine is imposing. He prefers that the public doesn't know which leg was amputated, and when he is wearing long pants, it is hard to tell.
“Between the Iraq and Afghanistan war, there have been a lot of amputations,” Smith said. “And a lot of amputees that have lived due to new medical philosophies that are being learned and taught on the battlefield. It allows more people to live when, in all reality, if this had happened during the first gulf war, many of them probably would not have.”
Smith has found the biggest misconception amputees have about themselves is what they can’t do. He says if they try, they’ll do better than they expected. Their body will adapt to the change.
“If you were injured overseas, you lost a limb, you lost two limbs, your life’s not over,” he said. “You could still go and pursue whatever dreams you wanted to do before you joined the military.” ■