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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Melissa Stockwell and her service dog, Jake, meet Reid Helton, 5, left, and Nino Castillo, 4, Wednesday at Turnstone. Stockwell, an Iraq War veteran and Paralympian, addressed the Northeast Indiana Base Community Council.

Thursday, April 20, 2017 1:00 am

Not finished fighting

Paratriathlons, parenthood vet's new challenges

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

Army veteran Melissa Stockwell has a unique way of referring to her life after April 13, 2004. She calls it Melissa Stockwell 2.0.

That was the day Stockwell, then 24 and freshly arrived in Baghdad about three weeks before, was riding in an open-sided vehicle that was hit by a roadside bomb.

She didn't know where she was going that day – literally and figuratively.

Literally, her job was to learn the route to the Iraqi capital's famed Green Zone. That's why she was sitting in the seat behind the driver instead of in the front seat on the passenger side.

Figuratively, she had no idea that a bomb would suddenly leave her without her left leg from her thigh down, she told an audience of about 160 Wednesday during a quarterly luncheon gathering of the Northeast Indiana Base Community Council in Fort Wayne.

The group, meeting at Turnstone's Plassman Athletic Center, provides support for families of those serving in the military with the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne and elsewhere.

“There was a lot of blood. It was my own blood,” said Stockwell, backed by a picture of the shredded vehicle. She said she could not look at the photo for months.

A pool of blood covers the sand next to where she had been sitting.

“My leg was actually gone. It had been severed,” she said.

Now, 13 years later, Stockwell is a three-time world-champion paratriathlete and bronze-medal-winning Paralympian in the triathlon. She's a wife and mother, awaiting the birth of her and her husband Brian's second child in August.

That, she said with a laugh – after flashing a sonogram of the baby-to-come with the image of a tiny American flag flying superimposed over the child's head – will begin Melissa Stockwell 3.0.

Stockwell's sense of humor and an athletic drive that had her as a child wanting to become an Olympic gymnast, led her through a trip to a hospital with a “T” – for tourniquet – marked on her forehead in black ink. She went through months of surgeries and infections and did rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C.

Challenged to do the New York City marathon on a hand cycle, she completed the 26.2-mile event and went back to Walter Reed a changed person, she said, thinking “if I can do this, then I can do anything.” She vowed to achieve athletically in honor of those who sacrificed their lives.

She moved to Colorado Springs and began training for the Paralympics as a swimmer because being in the water “was freeing,” she said. Breaking her own records and others, she made the team.

But she left Beijing in 2008 without a medal. She recalls feeling that she had let everybody down.

Nonetheless, she changed course and began training for the triathlon, which combines long-distance cycling with running and swimming. Before participating in the sport, she said, “I thought it was for crazy people.”

Last year at the Paralympics triathlon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stockwell stood on the podium with two other American women after winning a bronze medal. “I'll tell you … that never gets old,” she said.

Stockwell works with Dare2Tri triathlon club in the Chicago area, an organization she co-founded that encourages and trains athletes with disabilities for the sport.

Medically retired from the military with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the rank of first lieutenant, she's been in the same room with five living presidents and their wives. She's shared a laugh with former first lady Michelle Obama and danced with former President George W. Bush, who later memorialized the moment as a painting.

“I'm a proud veteran, a proud American and a proud amputee, and I show it off wherever I go,” said Stockwell, who travels with a black Lab service dog named Jake.

“Thirteen years ago, somebody tried to hurt me, and they did,” she said. “But it didn't stop me … from proving to the world that there is life after disability.”

rsalter@jg.net