Melissa Stockwell - The Invisible Wounds of War

Brian Lord: I'm Brian Lord, and on the show today, we have American war hero and Paralympic medalist Melissa Stockwell as she shares the story of dancing with the commander in chief, her path to becoming a Paralympic swimmer and triathlete, and the invisible wounds of war.


Brian Lord: We're excited to have on today Melissa Stockwell, Melissa, serve in the U.S. Army in Iraq, where she nearly made the ultimate sacrifice. She was the first woman to lose a limb in active combat and for services to country, she was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Since then, she's turned herself into a world champion athlete. In fact, a three-time world champion competing in Beijing and Rio. She currently has her eye on competing in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Melissa, thanks for coming on!


Melissa Stockwell: Thanks for having me, I'm excited to be on!


Brian Lord: Now, you have a pretty amazing story. It's split into a few different parts and it seems to start with the military. What made you decide to go into the military? Is it something you've always dreamed about or where did that come from?


Melissa Stockwell: So, I wanted to go into the military- my answer is pretty short and sweet because I love our country. I learned at a young age how lucky we were to live here and decided that I wanted to give back and wear our uniform and kind of represent and defend a country that I felt so lucky to be a part of.


Brian Lord: Now we have a lot of different speakers in different areas. What made you decide to choose the army out of out of the services?


Melissa Stockwell: It was always the army- I am not sure why. I don't come from a military family, so it's not like my father was in the army and that was why. I just kind of- when I wanted to join the military- the army just seemed like the natural choice to fall in to.


Brian Lord: So what is that process like? When you when you join are you looking for a specific thing that you want to do in the army or what was your course and rise through the military?


Melissa Stockwell: So I did ROTC in college, which basically means that I spent my three- about my sophomore, junior and senior year taking courses that would teach me about the military and kind of everything that encompassed the military. Everything from rankings to battle drills, you know, the history and that type of thing. And when I graduated, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant- so, an officer into the army- and the army kind of ranks you or gives you... They kind of give you choices on which branch and which part of the army you're going to be a part of. But it's kind of where their need is as well. So I eventually fell into the Transportation Corps. So I was in the Transportation Corps, part of the army. And then my first duty assignment was at Fort Hood, Texas, as part of the 1st Cavalry Division.


Brian Lord: Now, how long does it take to from when you go in and if you could also mention the years you're going in- But what's the time from going where you first sign up to when you actually start active duty, maybe on foreign soil?


Melissa Stockwell: You know, it kind of it kind of depends on the person and what route they go. So, I mean, personally, I was commissioned as an officer in 2002. I got my first duty assignment about a year later. You kind of go through an officer basic course. Where you learn all the ins and outs. So for me, all the ins and outs of transportation and vehicles and leading a convoy, I got to my first duty station at the end of 2003 and then we were deployed in March of 2004 over to Iraq. So it kind of very much depends on the person, on the ways of the world. I mean, you know, some some soldiers are in for 10 years and never, never go over to the combat or war zone. It just kind of depends on where the world is.


Brian Lord: So how long were you there? I know you mentioned a little bit in the intro about, you know, your life changed on one day. How long were you in-country before the incidents or your loss occurred?


Melissa Stockwell: So I was in Iraq for three weeks before I lost my leg. So it was a pretty quick, yeah. So, I mean, I was for three weeks, I was all over Iraq with, you know, with vehicles and leading convoys. And then April 13th of 2004 was the day everything changed. And it was, it was... it was quick. I wasn't there very long.


Brian Lord: So can you take us through that day?


Melissa Stockwell: Yeah. So it was April 13th, 2004, and it was basically a routine convoy. I basically did convoys every day leading into this day. And it wasn't anything super special about it. The difference in the day of April 13th is that typically I would lead the convoys. So I'd be like sitting in the passenger seat next to the driver. But this day I was doing a ride along, which basically meant that I was learning the routes because the next day I was going to take over and lead that route. So I was sitting behind the driver, but I didn't really have a role. I didn't really have a job that day other than just to learn the route. We left our base- our military base in Iraq that morning. And about 10 minutes into the ride, we went under this bridge under this underpass. And I mean, deafening boom. Black smoke, the smell of metal. I mean, basically our vehicle had been struck by a roadside bomb, so we swerved, our vehicles are to swerve, the windshield was cracked and we kind of ricocheted off a guardrail and we end up ultimately crashing into this Iraqi woman's house. And, you know, to make what could be, you know, a long story, pretty short, It resulted in the loss of my left leg above the knee. It was- it was gone. It was severed through the roadside bomb and the ricocheting off the guardrail and that type of thing. So, yeah, I had a combat medic who was two vehicles back. He saved my life and he stopped the bleeding. He put a tourniquet on and then from there, I was rushed in to a life-saving surgery at an American hospital which was right in central Baghdad. So a pretty eventful day.


Brian Lord: What was that recovery process like?


Melissa Stockwell: So after a few hours after that initial surgery in Iraq and then I flew to [Inaudible], Germany, which you're kind of stabilized before making the long trip back to the US. I was in Germany for about five days and then I ended up the following day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which at the time was in Washington, D.C. and it was where all the wounded soldiers went from Iraq and Afghanistan. So getting there and, you know, still a little bit out of it. But when I was, you know, another day, another day or two went by, I was able to really look around me and see other soldiers who had lost, you know, much more than I had. So one, two, three limbs. Their eyesight. Traumatic brain injuries. And I looked at myself and thought, I mean, I was... I was one of the lucky ones. I lost one leg. I had three good limbs. I had my life. I kind of, you know, accepted the loss then and chose to live my life for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. And not wanting to let losing a leg stop me from doing anything that I wanted to do.


Brian Lord: So, you know, we've talked a little more about the physical aspect of it. And then and you're you're just mentioning the mental aspect of choosing how are you going to do that? That's not the choice that everyone makes. Why do you think you chose to approach it that way?


Melissa Stockwell: You know, I've always been a very optimistic person, probably annoyingly so for some people. But it it almost accelerated it after losing my leg. And I mean, it was all about perspective also. I mean, I think in life, I mean, we all have these obstacles that we go through and some are bigger than others, but it's all relative to your own life. And, you know, when you think about your your bad days, it's kind of the notion that realizing that there's somebody out there who would love to have my bad days, like I have it pretty good. So whenever I start to feel bad for myself, kind of looking around and realizing I didn't- I couldn't feel bad for myself because it could have been so much worse. And on top of that, I had an amazing team. So my family, my friends, I mean, my parents were by my side from day one. And friends that dropped everything they were doing to fly to the hospital to be by my side. So just the realization that I wasn't alone going through that. There were people there with me who wanted me to get better.


Brian Lord: Does the military itself have different things to kind of help people with a mental process of a severe injury like that?


Melissa Stockwell: They do, though. So Walter Reed or the military hospital, as you can imagine- I mean, nurses, doctors, therapists. I mean, I you know, see them multiple times a week. I mean, every day. And there's also, I mean, there's psychologists, psychiatrists. I mean, the invisible wounds of war, as a lot of people call them, whether it's, you know, PTS or whatever it may be. I mean, they're very real. And the army, I mean, they do the best that they can to deal with the soldiers that are having issues. I mean, I think there are some that definitely go unnoticed and by the wayside, which is unfortunate. But I mean, while I was at Walter Reed in an inpatient, they they did- I mean, if I needed help, it was there. So I had all the resources that I could ask for.


Brian Lord: What advice would you give to people going through a really difficult time?


Melissa Stockwell: It gets better! I mean, it's hard. You go through these horrible times and you're like, oh, my life is never going to be the same. It's never going to be the way it used to be. And honestly, maybe it won't be the way that it used to be, but it doesn't mean it can't be as good. So I like to tell people that number one, find a team. Find family, friends that can be your team, find others going through similar circumstances that you can lean on and you can rely on. But also, you have to believe in yourself. I mean, you have to believe that you will be better. You have to, you know, have the perseverance to overcome whatever has come your way, knowing that you will be okay on the other side, and sometimes you're even better on the other side.


Brian Lord: So your story is not just the military, but as an athlete as well. What sports did you play? You know, obviously, you went to the Olympics or Paralympics for triathlon. Were you triathlete as a kid?


Melissa Stockwell: No, no. [Laughing] I don't even know if I knew what a triathlon was when I was younger. I was definitely not a triathlete.


Brian Lord: [Laughing] What did you start out- or what was your sport starting out?


Melissa Stockwell: Yeah, my sport was gymnastics. So I was a huge gymnast growing up. I you know, I dreamt of going to that Olympics as a gymnast. I was in the gym four plus hours a day. I kind of rose through the levels pretty quickly and was- I was called an Olympic hopeful at one time. So gymnastics was was my thing. I mean, I was a gymnast through and through when I was younger.


Brian Lord: Do you feel like that helps you out in the military? I mean, that's a tremendous amount of discipline to be especially a gymnast or any to anything where you're you're called an Olympic hopeful. How did that play into your ability to be a soldier?


Melissa Stockwell: You know, I think sometimes sports and military life, they kind of play off each other. I mean, you know, as an athlete growing up, I mean, you learn about team, you learn about try and doing your best. You learn about, you know, wanting, wanting to win and like prove to yourself that you can be the best. So I think a lot of that kind of leads into those military values of, you know, of team, of you know, being on time, of wanting to teach others or wanting to lead others. So I think a lot of them kind of play off of each other.


Brian Lord: Who are some of your coaches growing up and what did they teach you?


Melissa Stockwell: So I actually had an Olympic gymnast, Olga Corbitt from Russia, who was one of my gymnastics coaches when I was a little bit younger and she taught me what tough love was, and I sure that that has played a part in the rest of my life. But I mean, if we you know, if we fell off the beam, I mean, she told us to get back up. If we were on the bars and we had, you know, calluses and blisters and rips all over our hands, you said, you know, kind of like, well, suck it up and get back on there, because, I mean, you're not going to get any better if you don't. So I think as much as it might be hard at the time, I think I personally thrived on it and it kind of has helped me out in the rest of my life. But, you know, I mean, I think sports in general is just... And the coaches, I've had some amazing coaches, they still [are] kind of lifelong friends today just showing I mean, believing in you. I mean, sometimes it's nice to have somebody who believe in you even more than you might believe in yourself.


Brian Lord: As a competitive athlete, did you find that those leaders and mentors that you had in the military were similar at all, or how is that different between the military and sports?


Melissa Stockwell: You know, I think it's more kind of a tough love. I mean, the military, you know, you all wear the same uniform, but there's very much a hierarchy and rankings. And I mean, and I think you find more varied, more of a variety of leadership styles in the army. I mean, some you know, some leaders want to be your friend. Others don't. Others are you know, it's a tough love. Others are more sensitive. So just you almost learn just to adapt with- I mean in the military, like, if you have a higher ranking officer above them, I mean, you have to do what they say regardless of if you want to or not. As an athlete or with a coach, I mean, you kind of have a choice but in the military you really don't. And you signed up for that because I willingly join the military through ROTC. So basically it's similar, but it's different. And he just kind of learned to adapt with everything that surrounds that kind of hierarchy.


Brian Lord: So you lost your leg in 2004 and you were competing in Beijing in 2008. What when did you start thinking about the Olympics?


Melissa Stockwell: So I started thinking about the Paralympics just a few months after I lost my leg. So keep in mind, I had- I dreamed of being an Olympian in the sport of gymnastics when I was younger. And now... So somebody came to Walter Reed. So they came to the hospital and they put a presentation on all about the Paralympic Games. And I basically sat there, you know, only months after losing my leg. But I listened as this gentleman told us all about the Paralympics. And, you know, if I train hard enough and dedicated myself to a sport, I could compete on the world's biggest athletic stage. For somebody with a disability. I could wear a USA uniform that, you know, represented a country I defended over in Iraq. And it was kind of like a no-brainer, kind of got a second chance. So I left that meeting, just knowing that somehow, some way, I mean, I was going to be a Paralympian.


Brian Lord: So I know that you're into skiing. Why? Why did you choose for the Paralympics triathlon over skiing or another sport?


Melissa Stockwell: I initially started with swimming, so swimming was my first sport. And I started swimming early on during my rehab at Walter Reed because I didn't have to wear a prosthetic leg. I could get into the pool. And it just kind of made me feel like I like I was whole again and I loved it. So I decided that I was going to give it a shot in the sport of swimming when I was medically retired from the army. So I moved out to Colorado Springs. I trained at the Olympic Training Center and saw my times get better and better. But the Paralympics is not like the military where you just sign up and go. You have to beat your competitors and make certain times. And I was kind of a long shot to make the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, but I ended up doing everything I could do. And, you know, I ended up making that team. So competing in my first Paralympic Games in 2008 in the sport of swimming and then after that, turning to the sport triathalon and then qualifying for the 2016 Paralympic Games and triathlon.


Brian Lord: What's sort of your best out of the three disciplines, which is swim, bike, run. What is- what's your best?


Melissa Stockwell: You know, it kind of depends on the day. The run- the run is always hard because it's at the end. So I would say I mean, you push yourself through all of them, but the run just being the last thing. I mean, you have to give it all you have at the very end. I would say my best is probably the swim, just because I was you know, I went to the Beijing Paralympics as a swimmer. And I just- I love the water. So the best is the swim, I'd say the one I need to work on the most is the bike. And on the run is just I mean, the run it is what it is. Some days are good. Some days aren't so good.


Brian Lord: So you have you've had this amazing story up to this point for the Paralympics. What are you looking at and what's the process from here on out in looking at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics?


Melissa Stockwell: So, yeah, my goal is definitely to try to make my third Paralympic team again and triathlon for Tokyo 2020. And I mean, there's no... they have not announced the team yet. I'm not for sure on the team. And I just have to continue doing the best that I can do on these races that I go to and continuing to kind of work my way up the world rankings and get ranked as high as I can in hopes that I do make the team. So, you know, it's crazy that it's less than a year out and we are you know, we're kind of in the thick of it. So I have one more race left this year and then starting next year in March, it'll pick up again and yeah. Just doing the best I can in hopes of making that a reality.


Brian Lord: Now, obviously, you're you're a great competitor in your own right. But you do a lot to help others through your charity Dare to Tri. How did that come about and what do you do with Dare to Tri?


Melissa Stockwell: So Dare to Tri is a dare to try paratriathlon club and I co-founded it with two of my friends out of Chicago in 2011. And we all realized how sports affects somebody's life for the better and decided we are all triathletes and we decided why don't we start a club for people with disabilities and help them get into the sport of triathlon. So we provide, you know, coaching, training. There's adaptive equipment that athletes need whether its prosthetics or they're in wheelchairs and they have to use special custom made bikes that they ride with their arms called hand cycles or racing wheelchairs. And so helping- so providing those, we have year round programming, we have camps that serve youth, adults, injured service members. And, you know, we had a modest goal of getting, you know, a few athletes to their very first finish line, the first year. And, you know, nine years later, we have over 400 athletes on our roster. We have athletes that fly in from around the nation. And I really feel like one of the premier paratriathlon clubs in the nation. So we're very proud of the people that we've impacted. Our mission is "one inspires many" and our athletes. I mean, they inspire both on and off the racecourse.


Brian Lord: So you're you're also involved in some pretty VIP things, too. I asked your manager what I should ask you about. And he said that make sure to ask her about dancing with President Bush, what that was like. So can you tell us how that came about? And also that you get to hang out with five living presidents?


Melissa Stockwell: Yes. Yeah, I've I've been fortunate to have my my fair share of time with presidents. And yes, so President Bush- George W. Bush. He puts on a mountain bike ride at his ranch down in Texas. It's called the W One Hundred and he invites about 30 wounded veterans to take place in this mountain biking event. And I've been to it twice and the first night, the first time I was there, it's a three day event and every night there's these events, these like dinners that are put on, and the president and his wife, Laura Bush, they love music. There's always kind of these live music acts at these dinners. And I happened to be sitting next to him at one of these dinners and the band is playing and they're kind of clapping along. And I leaned over and I said, Mr. President, would you like to dance? And he looked at me, said, no, no, no, I'm not going to dance. I'm like, OK. And then a few minutes later, another soldier came up and asked if his wife could dance. And she said, yes. And got up and started dance. And then he turned to me and he said, "OK, I guess I'll dance." So then we got up and we started to dance and it felt like he needed like his wife's approval and I mean, that's amazing! But just kind of sharing this dance you know, with my commander in chief. You know, while I was serving over in Iraq. And it was just such a moment for me. And then he went on to paint this book called it's called Paint Portraits of Courage- and he paints on the side. And he painted over 60 wounded veterans as part of this book. And the honor of not just being in the book, but having the painting of this dance that we shared kind of in that book and memorialized it really forever. So, so, yes, I've seen him, you know, kind of through the years from time to time. I happened to see him five days after the birth of my son. So he held my son, Dallas, five days after he was born. And, you know, and my husband, Brian, he calls them Big Brian and it's a- yeah. He's just... I just- whatever you believe in politics, he's just a really great, great man. And then I guess along with that, he asked me to say the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of his library down in Dallas, Texas, and- extremely historic day. And, you know, standing in the back, waiting to go out on the stage to say the Pledge of Allegiance and ended up standing in a room with at the time were all five living presidents and their spouses. And I mean, I kept thinking, what am I doing here? Like this is this is like so like surreal right now. And President Bush introduced me to all the other president, like as his friend. So I kept going around saying, "Nice to meet you, Mr. President. Nice to meet you, Mr. President." I mean, I didn't know really what else to say! So just, you know, a day I went I went back to my hotel room that night, just kind of, you know, just exuding red, white and blue, just really proud of my story, where it had brought me and just again, living in the country that we do.


Brian Lord: So you just mentioned that you have a son, Dallas. Tell us a little bit about your family.


Melissa Stockwell: Yes. So I have a great family. I love my family. So my husband, Brian and then we have two kids. We have my son, Dallas, who will be five on November 25th and my daughter Millie, who just turned two and the whole new added aspect of life of, you know, having more reasons to get up in the morning and wanting to dream big and help them have big dreams of their own and just I don't know. Being a mom is my favorite job- it's my favorite and the hardest job in the whole world. But I'm just- I love it. I love my kids more than anything and I just hope that they see me do the things that I do and then they can cheer me on. And and when it's their turn, I'll turn around and cheer them on just the same. So, yeah, it's a good life.


Brian Lord: So final question. I've been told that you have a very unique way- many people, when they have a loss, it's something they remember but don't celebrate. But you take a really unique approach to that. So, so tell me what happens every year on the anniversary of losing your leg.


Melissa Stockwell: So if I celebrate, that sounds a little cheesy to some people, but I actually celebrate losing my leg. And a lot of soldiers have what are called their Alive Day. On the day every year that they lost, whatever they've lost, they celebrate being alive, which is a pretty genius idea. So I actually named what was left of my leg Little Leg. And we had a birthday for a Little Leg every year and it's become this event where family and friends fly and they're celebrating, they're dancing. We may or may not drink out of my leg, [Laughing] but I like those that come to find that out. What is really a day of reflection also like and my hope is that those that come gonna take a moment to reflect on their own lives and just really how good we have it. You know, we often spend so much time thinking about all the things that went wrong during our days. But if you think about it, you know, we all live amazing an life and have a lot to be thankful for.


Beyond Speaking is hosted by Brian Lord and produced by Eric Woodie

Melissa Stockwell: American War Hero, Paralympic Medalist, World Champion, Entrepreneur

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