Choosing to Serve: A Veteran’s Journey to the Paralympics

At a young age, Melissa Stockwell considered herself blessed to live in the United States. As a competitive gymnast, she remembers falling in love with the American flag as she sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of each match. Her love of the flag spawned her love of country, and she knew early on that she wanted to spend her life giving back.

Melissa joined ROTC when she arrived at college. After graduating in 2002, she served as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Transportation Corps before being assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, Texas. In March of 2004, Melissa was deployed to Iraq. Just three weeks later, as she was leading a convoy in Baghdad, her vehicle struck a roadside bomb. The blast resulted in the loss of her left leg, and Melissa became the first woman to lose a limb in the Iraq War.

After spending several days in a hospital in Germany, doctors transferred Melissa to Walter Reed Medical Hospital for surgeries and physical rehabilitation. As she looked around the hospital at other wounded Service Members, Melissa realized that she was one of the lucky ones—though she had lost a leg, she still had her life. She decided in that moment that she would live her life for those who had lost theirs.

“Making the choice to accept the loss of a leg and move on propelled me into a life that I never could have imagined,” Melissa said.

As she progressed in her physical rehabilitation, Melissa knew she wanted to incorporate sports back into her life. She had always been an athlete and was competitive at a young age. After being medically discharged in 2005, Melissa took up swimming and set her sights on competing in the 2008 Paralympic Games. Her hard work paid off and she became the first Iraq veteran to compete in the US Paralympics.

After the 2008 Games, Melissa decided she wanted an even greater challenge in her training and pivoted to compete in the paratriathlon. In 2010, she won her first World Championship in the sport. She went on to represent the United States in the Paratriathlon in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, where she took home the bronze medal.

Throughout her athletic career, Melissa often heard mention of Semper Fi & America’s Fund. It was not until 2013 when The Fund coordinated a meeting between victims of the Boston Marathon Bombings and several veteran athletes, that Melissa was officially introduced to the organization. She immediately became part of The Fund’s family as she and other veterans mentored the victims of the bombing—living examples of strength and resilience post-injury.

Since then, The Fund has come alongside Melissa to help her achieve her athletic goals. Whether it was getting a new bicycle wheel that would help her compete faster or covering the cost of entrance fees for competitions across the world, The Fund has been a constant source of support for Melissa. "I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for their help," she said.

Now, Melissa is preparing for her next challenge—the Tokyo Paralympics. She recently injured her back while training on her bicycle. Her case manager at The Fund, Lisa, immediately reached out to see how she could support her through the injury. Lisa would often send “surprises,” such as hot meals and gift cards, to allow Melissa to focus on her recovery and return to training. “The Fund has been an integral part of my road to the Tokyo Paralympics,” Melissa said. When she made the US Paralympic Team, Lisa sent cookies to help Melissa and her family celebrate.

On August 28, Melissa will be competing in the Paratriathlon in the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. It has been an honor to walk alongside her in her journey. Everyone at The Fund will be cheering from home as she represents the United States this year!