CALIFORNIA – As a U.S. Army machine gunner who successfully completed more than 300 combat patrols in Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, Karolyn Smith spent her waking hours focused only on her mission — and her survival. She never once thought a tiny, helpless kitten and its best feline friend would later be the key to surviving the next phase in her life.
There is no cuddly fluffiness in war, she said to TODAY. “Every day you either live or die: There’s nothing in between,” Smith stated. She learned that lesson very early in her deployment when her team leader was fatally shot right next to her. Then on an April morning back in 2005 while she was providing convoy security to a fuel tanker transport, a roadside bomb on a nearby light pole exploded very violently, changing her world forever.
It was her 13th roadside bomb encounter and it was almost her last. “It was the most brutal experience and it should have killed me,” she stated.” I lost my innocence and my invincibility on that battlefield.”
Considered disabled, Smith, who is now 43, endured a mild traumatic brain injury, spinal injuries and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. That has caused her to live constantly in a “flight or fight” mode, she explained, “waiting for things to explode.”
Being a female in a harsh, male-dominated environment stripped away most of her gender identity, Smith said. She now works as a regional security manager for a major bank, but when she first returned to civilian life in Santee, California, which is near San Diego in 2006, she found it difficult to integrate back into society with other women who hadn’t had the same incredibly difficult experiences.
“How do you talk about being in life-threatening combat where it was 142 degrees in the summertime? It’s just so different from complaining about a broken fingernail,” she stated.
The insider term for veterans is “war fighter,” and her community is now home to thousands of them. The city hosts three Marine Corps bases, three naval bases and one Coast Guard station.
As Smith, a 12-year U.S. Army war fighter and Army Reserve member, set out to confront the demons of increasingly severe PTSD, she relied on her fellow veterans for support — some of whom were double, triple or quadruple amputees.
They reached out to congratulate her and she received the 71st District of California Veteran of the Year Award back on June 25, 2014. She had already been awarded an Army Commendation Medal, Combat Action Badge, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and aso the Iraqi Freedom Medal.
One day back in 2014 while browsing the San Diego Humane Society’s Facebook page, Smith saw an adoption post made about two kittens, who had both been abandoned. She had always loved animals, but on that day one cat especially caught her eye.
“The marking on Sophia’s nose was rapturous,” she stated. “It’s like God told me, ‘This one. You need to look at this one among all the others.'” Sprinkles and Leprechaun, as they were being called back then, were both living in the nonprofit’s kitten nursery as inseparable companions.
Sophia had another very special quality: Veterinarians had amputated much of her right hind leg and positioned it in a tiny cast after it was determined it had been damaged while wrapped in the umbilical cord when she was born.
Smith knew very quickly that she wanted to adopt the pair, but first, she would have to enter a contest because there were so many other people also wanted the kittens.
After a few days had passed, after going into the Humane Society to apply, Smith learned she had indeed “won” the vote thanks to Facebook viewers who loved the idea of a “disabled veteran” adopting a disabled kitten. She later went on to change the kittens’ names to Sophia and Leonidas.
Back at home, she imagined how uncomfortable Sophia’s stump must feel to her, just like the amputated limbs of her veteran friends. And so, she wanted to do something and asked about using dolls’ shoes or little padded socks. Then she heard about Fab Lab in San Diego and asked them about going ahead and creating a prosthetic leg for Sprinkles — the first 3-D printed removable prosthesis for a cat, according to Smith.
“This is a complicated project, and we look forward to sharing it with the world so that Sophia and other animals with similar needs might benefit from it,” director Katie Rask explained to TODAY in an email. For this unpaid project, she stated that members joined forces to design and create the cat’s prosthetic foot using a wide variety of approaches, materials and techniques including 3-D technology.
“The final prototype should be ready in two weeks,” Fab Lab operations manager Allen McAfee said to TODAY.
As for Smith, she’s been relying on her kitties instead of actual medication for her PTSD. “They’re so funny and uplifting,” she went on to say. “When my fingers touch their fur, my mood improves. The cats have motivated me to go out into the world and be more productive.”
She now devotes her free time to serving her peers and to inspirational public speaking. When she volunteers to counsel her fellow veterans who also suffer from PTSD, or when she speaks to audiences about her experiences, she shares Sophia’s story, and she says that listeners have confirmed they can relate. Smith is also currently obtaining certification for Sophia as a therapy animal and has written a children’s book, “Sophia, The Bionic Cat,” to be published very soon.
Her friends can’t help but marvel at her creativity, determination and her big heart — for humans and animals in need. Smith’s friend, actor and former Marine Rodolfo Reyes, explained that he was a war fighter for 17 years, and after that, struggled with his own issues while at the Veterans Village of San Diego.
Smith reached out to him just then, and helped “put energy back into me,” he said to TODAY. “She’s a magnificent example of a soldier and a veteran.”
“Karolyn is a champ, powerful and inspirational, and Sophia is the light and joy in Karolyn’s life,” stated psychologist, fellow veteran and cat guardian Kristen Yuhl Torres, whose only child, Joseph, was killed in action in Iraq back in 2006 (she’s also an American Gold Star Mother). The two women worked seamlessly together to try and assemble and send “care packages” to soldiers overseas.
“Her kitties have given her purpose beyond her despair,” Torres said to TODAY.
See her adventures and Historic prosthetic HERE.