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How a blind Army vet reinvented himself after a life-changing injury

Tim Hornik lost his eyesight. But his vision for how to help others is stronger than ever.
/ Source: TODAY

Veteran’s Day shares an entirely different meaning for Tim Hornik, who was shot in the head while serving in Iraq on this day, 15 years ago.

Created by TODAY with our sponsor Cigna

The 40-year-old lost his vision after a severe injury while serving as a Captain for the U.S. Army. Since then, the father of two and husband has found new meaning to his life, through his family, friends and helping others.

In the fall of 2004, Hornik was deployed to Iraq.

So with blindness, one of the fun things is so many activities that originally are I and me-type activities, become team sports.

Tim Hornick

On November 11, 2004, while assisting the Iraq National Guard with security a raid, he was shot in the head by a sniper, causing severe visual impairments.

"I woke up on November 12th, 2004 to celebrate my 25th birthday by being alive, still," Hornik said.

He spent the next several months getting surgeries and recovering, waiting to see what the next chapter of his life would hold. His wife, Cate Smith, said that this period was difficult for them. As newlyweds, she said their "relationship hadn't really gelled yet."

Timothy Hornick

Hornik was able to stay on active service for several years after his injury until another opportunity came to light —to get his Masters in Social Work at the University of Kansas, while remaining on active duty.

Both Hornik and Smith credit this chapter of their lives for the positive outlook that Hornik has today.

Tim Hornick at the Purple Heart ceremony in 2005.
Tim Hornick at the Purple Heart ceremony in 2005.Timothy Hornick

Since he was completely blind in one eye — with limited vision in the other eye — Smith had to help her husband read his assignments. Through this, she says that she was lucky to get a similar education, which helped their relationship. She says that the communication classes were key — and helped them work through their issues.That's when they started working as a “unit.”

Hornik said that one of the strongest ways that they had to work together was when his first child, Abby, was born.

Timothy Hornick

“It was one of those steps forward that allowed me to really say, 'I need to change things.' I need to switch my life around and understand that we need to work together in order to make sure this newborn in this world has a life I would like her to live."

From there, the couple realized that they just had to change the paradigm and find ways that work for them. For example, Smith had to teach Hornik how to change diapers. And they came up with a unique way for Hornik to know what was on his dinner plate. The result was a clock system, where different types of foods would always be at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 marks."Every family's different and we kinda found our little groove and we have a pretty good support network here", Smith says.

Now parents of two children, Abby, 9, and Elenor, 2, the couple says that parenting isn't much different than it is for others. They still go for walks in the evening, bike with the kids and play games together.

Tim and Abby walking on the beach together in Hawaii.
Tim and Abby walking on the beach together in Hawaii.Timothy Hornick
Tim and his service dog, Barney.
Tim and his service dog, Barney.Timothy Hornick

Starting the new chapter in his life

Hornik medically retired from the military in 2011, which is when he began a new chapter of helping others like himself. He volunteers at several non-profits, including the Blind Veterans Association, and has his own small business, Blind Not Alone, where he consults with social workers and companies (like Aira) to help provide resources and guidance to others.

Adapting and finding new ways to do things has been the common theme for Hornik the past 15 years.

One reason Hornik has been able to adapt to a variety of situations is because of his guide dog, Barney. He was encouraged to get a service animal after his mentor and close friend, Paul Mimms (who is also a blind veteran) recommended him to, because of how helpful his service animals have been. America's VetDogs matched Tim with Barney a few years ago and he's been able to get more independence.

I can trust that Barney will take me where I would like to go, 'cause we have developed that rapport, that relationship that allows me just to have confidence and sense of safety and security to travel as I please, where I please.

Hornik used to love certain physical activities, like cycling, which he can't do alone now. "So with blindness, one of the fun things is that so many activities that originally are 'I and me-type' activities become team sports," Hornik says. On his tandem bike, he cycles with a pilot. Hornik was the first blind individual to compete the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel bike rice.

Despite being blind, Tim Hornik is still an avid biker.
Despite being blind, Tim Hornik is still an avid biker.Emily Slawek

"When I was originally injured, I viewed myself as a service member. I viewed myself as a officer. However, I look at my injury as a way of saying, 'That's the day that I first became a veteran,'" Hornik said.

"A lot of that does have to do with the fact that it did occur on November 11th, 2004. But also it has to do with that's when my mindset start looking at my life in such a different perspective."