On April 13, 2004, the Melissa Stockwell project started. After an IED (improvised explosive device) took her left leg – and nearly her life – in Iraq, Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell began the slow transformation into Melissa Stockwell 2.0, a medal-winning triathlete.
Stockwell was the featured speaker at the Culver Annual Review final program. Speaking before the Corps of Cadets Wednesday evening, Stockwell said she and her husband now celebrate April 13 as “Little Leg’s Birthday,” which is their version of what many wounded warriors call “Alive Day.”
It is also a day that reminds her that she has accomplished more with one leg than she probably would have with two. She has participated in two Paralympics, winning a bronze medal in 2016; won three world para-triathlon titles; been interviewed by Katie Couric; went bike riding with George W. Bush and Barak Obama; delivered the Pledge of Allegiance at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas; worked with First Lady Michelle Obama; and shared a room with the five living presidents and first ladies prior to the that ceremony. She is also included in Bush’s new book, “Portraits of Courage.”
Throw in her marriage, the birth of her first child, and the upcoming birth of her second in August, it is a pretty full life.
Stockwell’s journey began at the University of Colorado, when she joined the ROTC program her sophomore year. She has always had a “deep love of country,” and when she saw the cadets in their uniforms around the Boulder campus, she knew that was what she wanted to do. It was during her senior year that the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. The drill instructor told the cadets it was a “not a case of if, but when” they went to combat.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications (“I had no clue what I was going to do with it.”). She was also 2nd Lt. Stockwell and assigned to the First Cavalry at Fort Hood, Texas. She spent a year there before heading to Iraq. In just her third week “in country,” sitting in the back of Humvee, her convoy hit the IED and she lost her leg.
She saw the blood but didn’t immediate realize it was from her leg. When she did, Stockwell called for the medic, who dragged her out of the Humvee and started working on her leg. She was then taken by helicopter to a field hospital inside the Green Zone. Ironically, that is where her convoy was headed. It was there she found out the medic had marked her forehead with a “T,” standing for tourniquet. That made her a priority case.
I was glad it was me and not one of my soldiers. But I knew that I was going to be all right.
“At 24 years old, that is when my real life journey began,” she said. “I was glad it was me and not one of my soldiers. But I knew that I was going to be all right.”
Stockwell was moved to Walter Reed Hospital, where she discovered she was one of the lucky ones “because I had only lost one leg.” There were other soldiers there who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and were missing multiple limbs. The only difference between her old self and now was her prosthetic leg. She worked through walking using parallel bars, crutches, and cane. Soon, she was doing a marathon using a modified recumbent bike and skiing one-legged through the mountains. But she found her sport in swimming.
“Water is so healing,” she said. It was at this time, she found out about the Paralympics. While her times were good, they were not great but she moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., to train in earnest. She made the team for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and competed in the same pool where Michael Phelps won eight gold medals two weeks earlier. But she never made the podium, she said. “I got a participation medal that I wanted to chuck out the window.”
But her USA team members selected her to carry the American flag during the closing ceremonies. That is one of the biggest moments of her life, she said. “That is when I realized it’s the journey that is important.”
She moved to Chicago and started working for a company making prosthetics. That is when she learned about para-triathlons. Within a few months, she won (on Sept. 11, 2010) the world title in Budapest, Hungry. She repeated in 2011 and 2012. At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, she took the bronze medal, giving Team USA a podium sweep in the event. And, now, she preparing for Melissa Stockwell 3.0 with the new baby.
Stockwell closed by offering some tips she has learned along the way:
- Life is short. And life doesn’t always go as planned. You have to fight through the difficulties, but things will be better on the other side.
- To be a true leader, believe in yourself. Understand there will be setbacks. But don’t stop believing in yourself.
- Nuture the teams in your life. Surround yourself with good people. We’re all in this together.
- If you are not happy with your story, you are the person who has to change it.
- A dog (Jake, her black Labrador Retriever service dog of seven years) can be a woman’s best friend, too.
- Dreams do come true.