Wounded Warrior's Perseverance Inspires Chicago Crowd
August 19, 2011
CHICAGO, Ill.- Melissa Stockwell, former Army Lieutenant, above-the-knee amputee and Iraq war veteran has been on quite a journey since her injury in 2004. Seven years after losing her leg, she is a world champion paratriathlete and a paralympic competitor. She recently visited the Union League Club of Chicago to tell her story to American Legion Post 758.
From a young age, Melissa Stockwell was passionate about the American flag: the red, the white and the blue. Representing those colors is something she always wanted to do. Stockwell followed through with that patriotism by joining ROTC while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"When I was in ROTC, September 11th happened, I knew it was not a matter of if I would be deployed, it was more a matter of when," Stockwell says.
Stockwell's first assignment as a platoon leader took her to Ft. Hood. Shortly after arriving in Texas she deployed to Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division in March of 2004. Almost three weeks into her deployment, Stockwell went on a routine convoy outside of Baghdad. She describes it as an easy day, yet one that she will never forget. It was the last day she walked on her own two legs. The HUMVEE, which had no doors and no armor, was hit by a roadside bomb and her leg was severed.
"I lost my leg, but I had my eye sight. I had my mind. I set to live my life for those that didn't make it back and to prove to myself that losing a leg wasn't going to stop me from doing anything," she said.
After one year of surgeries and strenuous rehabilitation in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she stood for the first time and began to learn how to live with a prosthetic leg. She credits the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), a non-profit organization that assists wounded service members to transition into civilian lives, for helping her realize her full potential after the injury.
A WWP volunteer approached her to go on a ski trip when she could barely stand on her new leg. She signed up anyway and says the trip changed her life. She was on the top of a mountain skiing down on one leg, wind in her hair, moving in a way she never dreamed possible. She returned to Walter Reed feeling invincible, thinking she could do anything she wanted to do.
"A year, one knee and one leg later. I was retired from the Army with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star," Stockwell says.
Although retired from the Army, it was not the last time she would wear a uniform and represent her country. Stockwell dreamed of competing in the Olympics as a child. After learning of the Paralympics while in Walter Reed, she realigned her dreams and set them for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. She spent the next few years in a pool training hard, swimming countless laps.
"I would be able not only to represent our country on the world's highest athletic stage but I would be able to wear a USA uniform and represent this country that I defended over in Iraq," Stockwell says.
Although she broke records with her swimming times, she only walked away with a participation medal. Initially she looked at the medal with scorn, but then began to look at it with pride, recognizing the incredible journey taken to get to that point.
After Beijing, Stockwell turned her focus to triathlons, competing in several races around the country. She won a gold medal at the International World Paratriathlon Championships in Budapest, Hungary last year. Winning the medal was one of the greatest moments of her life. It was September 11th when she crossed the finish line wearing a U.S.A. uniform with an American flag draped over her head.
She currently works as a board-certified prosthetist at Scheck and Siress, one of the largest prosthetics companies in Chicago. When fitting people with a prosthetic she gives them hope that their life isn't over; it will keep going. Recently, with the help of two friends, she started a paratriathlon club in Chicago, called Dare2Tri, for athletes with disabilities.
The field of prosthetics is growing at a rapid rate, particularly due to Soldiers coming back from combat zones wanting to play sports and push it to the limit, post injury. Stockwell wears a C-leg knee prosthesis and charges it every night, like a cell phone. It allows her to walk down stairs and move as normally as possible. She has four different legs for swimming, running, biking, and walking.
Stockwell participated in the Midwestern Valor Games in Chicago, a three day competition August 23-25 for wounded warriors and active duty service members.
Stockwell hopes to keep her title as world champion paratriathlete and to compete in the 2016 Paralympics, but she says whether she's competing or not, she will be coaching and mentoring other disabled athletes.
Seven years after the accident, she never expected to speak to a group about her injury, but reminds them that whatever happens in life to persevere through the struggles. She says when things don't go your way, keep on going and most importantly stay surrounded by people who love you.