As a U.S. Army machine gunner who completed more than 300 combat patrols in Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, Karolyn Smith spent her waking hours focused on her mission — and her survival. She never thought a tiny, helpless kitten and its best feline friend would later be the key to surviving the next phase in her life.
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There is no cuddly fluffiness in war, she told TODAY. “Every day you either live or die: There’s nothing in between,” Smith said. She learned that lesson early in her deployment when her team leader was fatally shot right next to her. Then on an April morning in 2005 while she was providing convoy security to a fuel tanker transport, a roadside bomb on a nearby light pole exploded violently, changing her world forever.
It was her 13th roadside bomb encounter and nearly her last. “It was the most brutal experience and it should have killed me,” she said.” I lost my innocence and my invincibility on that battlefield.”
Considered disabled, Smith, now 43, endured a mild traumatic brain injury, spinal injuries and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s caused her to live constantly in a “flight or fight” mode, she said, “waiting for things to explode.”
Being a female in a harsh, male-dominated environment stripped away much 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, 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 said.
The insider term for veterans is “war fighter,” and her community is 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, confronted 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 when she received the 71st District of California Veteran of the Year Award on June 25, 2014. She had already been awarded an Army Commendation Medal, Combat Action Badge, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Iraqi Freedom Medal.
One day in 2014 while browsing the San Diego Humane Society’s Facebook page, Smith saw an adoption post for two kittens, who had 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 said. “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 called back then, were both living in the nonprofit’s kitten nursery as inseparable companions.
Sophia had another special quality: Veterinarians had amputated much of her right hind leg and positioned it in a tiny cast after determining it had been damaged while wrapped in the umbilical cord when she was born.
Smith knew right away that she wanted to adopt the pair, but first she’d have to enter a contest because so many people also wanted the kittens.
A few days later, after going into the Humane Society to apply, Smith learned she had “won” the vote thanks to Facebook viewers who loved the idea of a "disabled veteran" adopting a disabled kitten. She later changed the kittens’ names to Sophia and Leonidas.
Back at home, she imagined how uncomfortable Sophia’s stump must feel, just like the amputated limbs of her veteran friends. 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 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 told TODAY in an email. For this unpaid project, she said 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 told TODAY.
As for Smith, she's been relying on her kitties instead of medication for her PTSD. “They’re so funny and uplifting,” she said. “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 devotes her free time to serving her peers and to inspirational public speaking. When she volunteers to counsel her fellow veterans who have 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 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 marvel at her creativity, determination and her big heart — for humans and animals in need. Smith’s friend, actor and former Marine Rodolfo Reyes, said 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 then, and helped “put energy back into me,” he told 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,” said psychologist, fellow veteran and cat guardian Kristen Yuhl Torres, whose only child, Joseph, was killed in action in Iraq in 2006 (she’s also an American Gold Star Mother). The two women worked seamlessly together to assemble and send “care packages” to soldiers overseas.
“Her kitties have given her purpose beyond her despair,” Torres told TODAY.