"There were so many times I just wanted to quit and give up," Smiley tells PEOPLE. "I just couldn t see the end in sight"

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated July 01, 2015 04:35 PM
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Credit: SkEye Studios

Record-breaking heat caused 188 competitors to quit an Ironman triathlon this past Sunday in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, but blind veteran Scotty Smiley was not one of them.

The retired major and his brother-in-law, Andy Cooper, crossed the finish line at 10:20 p.m. after a grueling 16-hour effort.

“There were so many times I just wanted to quit and give up,” Smiley tells PEOPLE. “I just couldn t see the end in sight.”

Although Smiley couldn’t see the road ahead, he could hear what was driving him – his family – every step of the way. His wife Tiffany even rode her bike alongside them for half the marathon.

“It was amazing to hear them as I transitioned from the bike to the run – throughout the run just screaming my name,” says the 35-year-old veteran, who lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and three sons. “And then to be there to give my wife and my boys a hug, it was a great feeling.”

In April 2005, Major Scott Smiley was left blind and partially paralyzed by shrapnel from a suicide car bomb that went off while he was leading a platoon in northern Iraq.

“The blast injuries damaged the left side of my brain, partially paralyzing the right side of my body,” Smiley tells PEOPLE. “So it wasn t just permanent blindness, I also couldn t walk.”

Smiley attributes the recovery of his mobility to his family and his faith. “It was just through prayer, my family’s support and God’s love and grace that I started moving my right hand and moving my right foot,” he says.

Undaunted, Smiley returned to the service as the United States Army’s first blind active-duty officer. Since then, he has continued to search for new ways to inspire others – from climbing Mount Rainier to learning to surf to writing a book about his journey.

Competing in an Ironman is simply his latest stop on a quest to show others that anything is possible. And it’s what motivated him as he faced 135-degree ambient heat during the final 13 miles of his run.

“At my lowest point, my wife said, ‘You know, Scotty, you’re not doing this for yourself, you’re doing this for those who can’t be here,’ ” Smiley tells PEOPLE. “And it really just inspired me to look past my own pain and misery and realize, ‘You’re doing this for a higher calling, you’re doing this for something more than just yourself.’ ”

To jog across the finish line after the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run “was just a feeling of completeness,” he says.

Smiley’s Ironman journey will be the subject of an upcoming documentary, which will be released November 11, 2015. More information can be found here.