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An IED took a veteran's leg, not her fighting spirit

By Jennifer Grubb, CNN
updated 10:07 AM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Melissa Stockwell was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army in March 2004
  • Three weeks later, Stockwell's Humvee hit a roadside bomb
  • She lost her left leg, becoming the first female amputee in Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • She swam in the 2008 Paralympics and now is a champion paratriathlete

(CNN) -- As a young competitive gymnast, Melissa Stockwell's heart would fill with pride as she looked at the American flag and sang the national anthem before every meet. When anyone would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would say she wanted to join the Army.

Stockwell's parents thought she was going through a phase, but she joined the ROTC program while at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After graduating with a communications degree in 2002, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Transportation Corps.

At 23 years old, Stockwell was deployed to Iraq in March 2004. Less than a month later, her life changed forever. She was part of a routine convoy going through central Baghdad when a big explosion went off.

"Think of the loudest noise you can imagine and our vehicle starts to swerve," she recalls. "The woman in the front yells IED, IED, we've hit an IED!"

Stockwell's left leg was gone. "It sounds strange, but as soon as I was told I didn't have my leg, I knew it was going to be OK," the veteran says. "I just kind of had this almost peaceful feeling that, alright, it's going to be alright. Life isn't over."

While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Stockwell says she was inspired by other patients.

"You see these other soldiers and these other veterans that are missing two limbs, three limbs, sometimes four limbs ... and I looked at myself and I just really thought I'm one of the lucky ones and I kind of made a decision then that I was going to live my life for those who couldn't."

Stockwell learned to walk with her new leg and become independent, but she knew she wouldn't feel like herself until she got back into sports.

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"Luckily there are organizations out there that really grab the wounded veterans from their hospital rooms and get them out doing things that they may not have ever done with two legs," she says.

Four months after her injury, she went skiing in Colorado. The experience gave her an incredible feeling of freedom and opened up a world of new possibilities.

After spending a year at Walter Reed, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient medically retired from the Army. Stockwell went back to school for a new career in prosthetics at Century College in Minnesota.

"Basically you fit amputees with artificial limbs," she says. "I didn't know the field existed until I needed a leg, but then I thought, 'Well that's pretty cool.' "

After moving to Minnesota, she joined her first competitive swim team. A presentation about the Paralympics inspired her to fight for her country on a new battlefield.

"I dreamed of going to the Olympics when I was younger," she says. "And now it was almost like I had a second chance. So I decided to try in the sport of swimming. It was easy for me to swim. I didn't have to wear a prosthetic leg."

In 2008, Stockwell became the first Iraq war veteran to be chosen for the U.S. Paralympic Team. She felt like her life had come full circle: "It made me feel so, so alive."

Today the 32-year-old veteran works as a certified prosthetist at Scheck and Siress in Chicago and runs a triathlon club she started with friends Keri Schindler and Dan Tun two years ago. Dare2Tri provides adaptive equipment and coaches for athletes with disabilities.

Cancer survivor and amputee Hailey Danisewicz says Dare2Tri has taught her that, "my possibilities as a person are endless and that I can do anything that I put my mind to."

In October Danisewicz placed second at the Paratriathlon World Championships in New Zealand. First place, for the third consecutive year, went to her coach and mentor Melissa Stockwell.

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