Leading the Way

Tragedy turned into triumph

Melissa Stockwell knew from a young age she wanted to be in the Army. She dreamed of representing the red, white and blue, and proudly wearing that flag patch on the shoulder of her uniform.

That dream became a reality when she joined The University of Colorado at Boulder ROTC program. She was a senior when the World Trade Center towers came down on Sept. 11, 2001. She knew then it would only be a matter of time before she deployed.

Fast-forward to April 13, 2004. Melissa, now a Second Lieutenant, had been in Iraq for little more than three weeks. Her mission for the day was to take part in a routine convoy through Central Baghdad.

The day turned out to be anything but routine. Melissa’s humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device, severing her left leg above the knee. A combat medic pulled her out of her vehicle and administered life-saving care.

After 24 years of having both of her legs, this was the day her real life’s journey began. The turning point was when she returned stateside to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“I saw so many soldiers that were worse off than me,” she explained recently at an event benefiting the Siskin Hospital for Rehabilitation. “Some were missing two or three or four limbs. Some had traumatic brain injuries. Others had lost their eyesight. I thought, holy cow am I lucky, all I lost was one leg. I had three good limbs, my mind and my eyesight. I made a promise then to live my life for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, because too many had.”

Fifty-two days after losing her leg, Melissa took her first steps on her prosthetic one. That was the day she knew she would be independent again.

But taking a few steps simply wasn’t enough for Melissa. The lifelong athlete wanted more. She learned to ski on one leg. She completed the New York City marathon in a handcycle.

As a young gymnast, Melissa also had dreams about winning a medal in the Olympics. So she was all in when she found out about the Paralympic Games and the possibility of competing on the world’s biggest athletic stage while representing the country she defended in Iraq.

After medically retiring from the army with a Purple Heart and bronze star, Melissa dedicated herself to swimming. Her hard work paid off when she qualified and was named to the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swim Team.

“I swam in three events in Beijing and came up short,” she said. “I felt like I’d let everyone down, like I should have done better for them. But I learned a really important lesson. We all want to be on top, to have those medals, but like a lot of times in life, it’s about the journey to get somewhere.

“When my teammates nominated me to carry the American flag in the closing ceremony, typically reserved for someone who’s done well athletically, I realized it wasn’t about the medals, it was about having heart and persevering through obstacles that you never expect and coming out better on the other side. I had never been so proud to carry that flag.”

After Beijing, Melissa started competing in the sport of triathlon, going on to win three world championships. She’s had the honor of dancing with President George W. Bush, and cycling with President Barack Obama. She’s been interviewed by Katie Couric, and fist-bumped Tom Brokaw.

Through it all, Melissa remains humble, citing giving back to the community through co-founding the Dare2Tri Paratriathlon Club as one of her proudest accomplishments. “There are so many people in my life that helped me get to where I am today. Through the club, we’re showing people what is possible and that there is life after disability,” she said.

In 2016, Melissa was named to the first-ever U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team. The sport made its debut at the Rio Paralympic Games and on Sept. 11, 2016, Melissa raced her way to a bronze medal as part of a USA sweep.

“In life, there are twists and turns and obstacles that come our way, but we all have the power to overcome those obstacles,” she said. “I can honestly say I’ve done more in my life with one leg than I ever would have with two. And when I look back, I look at the teammates who helped me get here, and I am forever thankful and in awe. If there’s something holding you back, find your team, because we’re really all in this life together.”

Melissa’s appearance at Siskin was sponsored in part by Unum, a leading provider of disability benefits in the U.S. and the U.K., headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn.  In 2016 in the U.S., Unum processed more than 597,000 new claims and paid $5.8 billion in benefits. Of those claims, about 419,154 were for disability coverage.