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'Every day is a gift': Former child abductee Elizabeth Smart speaks at annual Longview Regional event

By Christina Lane
Aug. 1, 2013 at 11 p.m.

Elizabeth Smart, who was snatched from her Utah bedroom more than a decade ago, said Thursday night she could have spent the rest of her life dwelling on the horrific events of the nine months she spent in captivity, but she chose to push through the adversity and move forward with her life.

"We all have our own problems. We have a choice to keep moving forward or we can allow our trials to suck us back," Smart said. "A lot happened to me in those nine months - none of it was pleasant. I could dwell on it every single second for the rest of my life, but I don't want to. Every day really is a gift. ... I want to live my life so that if I die tomorrow, I would feel I had lived my life to the fullest."

Smart was the keynote speaker Thursday at Longview Regional Medical Center's Healthy Woman Anniversary Celebration. For five years, the hospital's Healthy Woman program has provided free health education events designed to help women maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit. More than 1,200 East Texans are members of the program.

Libby Bryson, marketing director for Longview Regional Medical Center, said Smart was chosen to address the crowd of 960 women and men Thursday night because she overcame a tragedy and represents a strong, healthy woman.

The news Thursday that Ariel Castro - who abducted three Ohio women and held them captive for more than a decade - was sentenced to life in prison made Smart's visit to Longview even more relevant.

"I think they are incredible," Smart said of the Ohio women. "They deserve every happiness."

Smart said she would encourage anyone who has been in a similar situation as hers to know that happiness is still out there.

"That event doesn't define who you are," Smart said.

The event that shaped Smart's life occurred June 5, 2002, when she awoke in the middle of the night as a male voice said, "I have a knife at your neck. Don't make a sound. Get up and come with me."

"I thought it had to be part of a dream," Smart said.

The man, who went by Emmanuel but was later identified as Brian David Mitchell, threatened to kill Smart's family if she didn't do exactly as he said. Fearing for her family's lives, the then 14-year-old girl complied.

That night Smart was led out of her home and up a mountain. She recalled begging Mitchell to go ahead and kill her as she crawled through a ravine. She didn't want to get so far away from her family that her body would never be found; she wanted her family to know what had happened to her.

"He smiled and said, 'I'm not going to do that ... yet,' " Smart said.

As they came upon a grove of trees, Smart was led through a clearing where a woman came out of a tent and hugged her. She was then shown into the tent where she was forced to remove her clothes and put on a robe.

"I couldn't stop thinking about my family," she said. "Did anyone know anything about what had happened?"

Lost in her thoughts, Smart came to and realized Mitchell was kneeling next to her. He told her, "I hear by seal you to me as my wife," and proceeded to rape her.

"I will never forget how it felt lying there on the floor of that tent. I will never forget how broken and filthy and terrible and how absolutely shattered I felt," she said.

Smart said she questioned how anyone could ever love her again, and in that moment she wanted death to come quickly. But she was reminded that her mother had told many times that she would always love her and that nothing would ever change that.

"I made the decision to keep living," Smart said. "I made the decision that I would do whatever it took to survive and make it home again."

Nine months later, police spotted a man, woman and girl in the Salt Lake Valley and realized they had found Smart. She was separated from her captors and returned to her family. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison and his wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, is serving a 15-year sentence for her role in the kidnapping.

Smart said her faith in God and her desire to see her family again pushed her through those nine months of her life. She said she believes, as Mother Teresa once said, "I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much."

"There's nothing we can't handle," Smart said.



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