FORT LEE, Va. (Dec. 17, 2019) -- Like many Soldiers this time of year, Staff Sgt. Onassiss Melton plans to enjoy the holiday season amid the warmth of family and friends.
Thoughts that are likely to be on his mind, however, are far from ordinary. The cherished moments could have easily been snuffed out of existence when he suffered a gunshot wound during a shooting that took place just minutes outside the installation's Sisisky Boulevard gate earlier this year.
Melton, a Ranger-qualified 23rd Quartermaster Brigade Soldier with eight deployments under his belt, said the incident was quantitatively more frightening than anything he experienced in the deserts of Southwest Asia.
"Obviously, in my first and second firefights, I was terrified, but I have never been as afraid as I was in that moment because I was helpless," he said.
Melton has been wounded several times during deployment while engaging the enemy as a special operator, each time pulled to safety by battle buddies. There was no such immediate aid or cover fire for the shooting incident that occurred July 25 around 6 p.m.
Departing Fort Lee for his residence, a uniform-clad Melton entered the onramp for I-295 North from Route 36 when a black SUV stopped at the midsection of the loop. A man got out of a vehicle and ran toward another traveling a few feet behind. Melton, in the third vehicle, said he initially thought the individuals knew each other or he was seeing a case of developing road rage.
"This guy runs up to the second car, grabs the door handle and I see a gun in his hand," he recalled. "I began to blow the horn … bomp, bomp bomp!"
The driver of the second vehicle tried to flee but not before the gunman escalated his attack.
"All of a sudden he starts shooting -- three times into her car at pointblank range … pow, pow, pow!" said Melton.
Astonishingly, the second vehicle operator -- Melton said he had no idea whether she was hit -- drove across a grassy area outside the loop and escaped further harm. Stunned, he put his vehicle in reverse with plans to quickly remove himself from the danger.
"The adrenaline is pumping now," he remembered. "I tried backing up and driving away."
The shooter, standing indecisively where the second vehicle had been, turned his attention to Melton's SUV, which was still stopped near its original position.
"I thought I threw it in gear, but I didn't," he said, pointing eastward on a sketch of the scene. "I was in neutral, stepping on the gas and going nowhere."
Realizing there was a problem, the shooter moved smartly toward the driver's side of Melton's tinted-windowed, small SUV.
"At this point, I see him hold the gun up, and the only thing I could do is try and put my head near the seat belt (anchor point)," said Melton. "I'm leaning back and trying to get my body away from the front of the window, and I got my hand on the bottom of the wheel, trying to get out of there."
His actions were insufficient. The shooter fired once into the window, breaking but not shattering it. The bullet hit Melton in the left forearm, exiting from the opposite side.
"Then he walks toward my door -- I could see his whole shadow standing there -- and he is flipping my door handle, trying to get in," he said of the attempted carjacking.
Within a few seconds, Melton finally managed to put the car in drive and he sped across the grass toward the interstate. The shooter fired another shot at Melton as he fled to the top of the ramp near the shoulder and onto the interstate. That shot missed the vehicle.
Moments later, Melton said he saw police cars making their way to the scene. It was only a matter of minutes since the first shots were fired. As it turns out, the authorities had been pursuing the shooter's vehicle, which had been carjacked in Stafford County earlier the same day. Weapons drawn, they soon had the young male attacker surrounded as he lay on the pavement of the onramp.
With his adrenaline waning, Melton came to a full stop and began assessing himself. The blood on his sleeve made it known he had been shot and blood in the abdomen area made him think there was internal damage.
Merely by chance -- because Melton routinely removes it before his commute -- he was wearing a fighting load carrier ammo vest. Stuffed in one of the pockets was a tourniquet he uses to train Soldiers. He treated himself with it, placing it tightly around his upper bicep.
Melton's surprise and hurt evolved into rage. He began walking toward the arrest scene with thoughts of settling a score with the person who had randomly sought to kill him. He gave no thought to how his appearance -- an intense, scowled expression, a blood-soaked uniform shirt and purposeful manner of movement -- might be interpreted by police, who at this point did not know he was a victim. A passerby who stopped to assist him on the highway brought him to his senses.
"He said, 'Man, you can't walk down there like this. Those guys will shoot you!'" recalled Melton, noting the motorist made a pleading offer to call a loved one or friend to intervene. "I looked down at my uniform, and I'm like, 'OK, just calm down,' and I went back to the car."
Now far removed from the tense moments, Melton was attacked again -- this time by excruciating pain from his wounds and the mind-numbing realization of what his death would mean to his 9- and 5-year-old daughters Mariah and Karter.
"At that point, I had blood all down my pants, on my boot, and it was trickling down my fingers. I sat in the car thinking, 'Are they going to be taken care of?'"
Melton called Staff Sgt. Armando Moreno, a 23rd QM Brigade medic, for advice on his wound (the ambulance had not yet arrived). He also contacted Staff Sgt. Rohan Murdock, a coworker.
"I called those two for very good reasons -- Moreno was going to medically take care of me and Murdock was going to carry me out to safety," said Melton, chuckling with pride as he recalled how his battle buddies rushed to the scene.
His fellow Soldiers' response harked back to his days in the Ranger Regiment where loyalty is an expectation with deep roots in the underground of combat survival. Melton said it is one of the reasons why he is forever intoxicated with Ranger culture.
"I know the people around me are going to take care of me," he said. "These guys, what wall won't they run through (to bring him to safety)? And I'd better run through that same wall if I'm needed. They will go down for me. I know they will."
Unfortunately, the brother-in-arms security was nowhere to be found during the ordeal.
"I was by myself," said Melton, noting he was without the protection of friends or firepower. "It was one of the loneliest, most helpless feelings I've ever had in my life."
Ambulance medics confirmed Melton's suspicion he was shot in the arm. The injury has resulted in nerve damage. His bloodied abdomen was caused by glass fragments.
The second driver, also a Fort Lee Soldier, was miraculously not hit, although one of the bullets traveled between her legs and through the driver's side seat.
Police charged a New Jersey teenager with aggravated malicious wounding, carjacking, two counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony and two counts of shooting into a vehicle, according to Richmond's WRIC. A female suspect was an accomplice in the carjacking. Her whereabouts are unknown.
Melton, who has earned three degrees including one in psychology, was called to trial a few weeks after the incident. The resentment toward his attacker had dissipated, however, partly due to the information he gathered from media reports before the court case began.
"They showed the guy's picture later that night (on TV the day of the incident)," recalled Melton. "They were like, 'He's 18 years old.'
"'Eighteen years old?'" he repeated incredulously. "'He's a child; (not much younger than the AIT Soldiers) I train in the woods every day.'"
Melton, who also has a teaching degree and takes seriously his counseling responsibilities as an NCO, said he was struck by the defendant's audacity during the trial but also touched by his story.
"I felt like he didn't have the mentorship," he said, noting the crime was random and not gang-related. "That's why he took a wrong path."
The prosecutors, said Melton, were pushing to find the defendant guilty on multiple charges.
"They were like, 'Yeah, we're trying to get almost 50 years for this guy.' I'm thinking to myself, 'He's a child. He's needs to pay, but do I want him to pay with his life?'"
Melton, who's seen many turnaround stories in the Army, seems to lean toward second chances. He said it is not above him to venture into the jailhouse at some point to see his assailant.
"I just want to talk to him and ask him, 'Why?' and to just have a conversation."
Why go through the trouble of conversing with someone who nearly killed you, Melton reflected. "Maybe I'm looking for some good in him," he said.
The New Jersey man is currently awaiting a follow-up trial. Melton has gone through rehab to regain the use of his left hand. He said progress has been rapid but the ultimate prognosis of his recovery is still uncertain.
"I've put my life on the line so many times for my country and will continue to do it,"
Melton vowed. "I'm hoping he hasn't taken it from me because he wanted a car."
Murdock, Melton's coworker, said his battle buddy embodies the Ranger spirit, and he wouldn't be surprised if he winds up with a Ranger unit in the future.
"He clearly misses it from the conversations we've had," he said.
Melton cares for his daughters more. His holiday season will not consist of sending toys to his children through the mail or sending videos of himself at some remote location. This year, they will receive the gift of his presence.
"I'm just looking forward to being a dad around the holidays," he said, noting his kids are scheduled to visit. "It's something I've never had the opportunity to do because of the many deployments. Being home for the holidays and actually being with them is going to be a brand new experience for all of us."
Made all the more special in light of an improbable incident.