The act of serving one’s country in the armed forces seems like a heavy decision for some. While honourable, brave and very rewarding, there is no denying the amount of risk that also comes with putting on a uniform to defend one’s country. But for others, including USA paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell, that decision was the easiest decision she ever made.
“I get asked a lot why I joined the military and the answer is pretty short and sweet: I love our country, I love America, the red, white and blue and I wanted to give back. So that was kind of always the plan.”
Her plan, took a more serious turn however on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked. Stockwell was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at the time, and while going to foreign soil was always a possibility, 9/11 turned it into a reality.
Stockwell was deployed into war and was stationed in Baghdad, Iraq as a convoy commander, where she was in charge of multiple vehicles. It was there that she suffered an injury that would forever change her life.
On April 13, 2004, a mere three weeks into her tour, she was on a Humvee leaving her camp when a huge explosion occurred that caused the vehicle to swerve into a guardrail before crashing into a local house. While training had prepared Stockwell for this type of situation, nothing had prepared her for what she was about to discover.
She attempted to exit the vehicle when she noticed a great deal of blood by her feet. Calling for help, she motioned over a medic who recovered her from the truck and gave her aid. It was then that Stockwell realized that she had lost a limb from the collision.
Losing a leg is devastating, and while most would consider themselves tragic, the opposite was true for Stockwell. In fact, the word she used to describe her situation is: lucky.
“I was really thankful to have my life. When I got to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that really helped me put it into perspective because I was surrounded by other soldiers who were a lot worse off than I was—missing multiple limbs or having brain issues. So I really couldn’t say “poor me” anymore because I had three limbs, I had my eyesight, I had my mind and my heart. I really was one of the lucky ones because I had my life.”
Her loss also became the start of something she could have only dreamed of. It was not long after her injury that she discovered the Paralympics. Growing up wishing she could represent her country in the Olympics as a gymnast, the Paralympics was an avenue that allowed her to represent the USA in a different way.
In 2008, Stockwell competed in the Beijing OIympic Games as a swimmer. And while she did not perform well enough to receive a medal, she was however given the opportunity to be the flag bearer at the closing ceremony, an honour that to this day she still is proud to frequently revisit.
After Beijing, Stockwell was invited to compete in a triathlon. Apprehensive of a sport where you swim, bike and run in one race, she ultimately decided to give it a try. It was at the moment when she crossed the finish line where she knew she was hooked on the sport—and thanks to that moment, the rest is history.
Melissa Stockwell is a three-time paratriathlon World Champion (2010, 2011, 2012) and is currently in training on a quest to compete in the upcoming 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. She is the founder of Dare2Tri, a paratriathlon club in Chicago aimed at helping athletes with disabilities compete in triathlons and also works in the field of prosthetics helping others with similiar situations as herself for her day job. She is spending her life pursuing her passions and following her dreams, because she knows she is lucky to have one.
Putting on a uniform and serving her country has always been important in Stockwell’s life. And when life took a turn that caused her to make a physical sacrifice, she found sport, found triathlon, and has found a new uniform to put on to represent the red, white and blue.