It was truly a night to remember. A few weeks ago, I attended the Board meeting of our United Methodist-related Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa. President John Reynders, now in his 22nd and last year before retirement, is the longest-tenured president in the university’s history. Beloved by faculty and students alike, President Reynders has transformed Morningside into a world-class institution of higher learning. At the annual Sioux City Chamber of Commerce dinner on September 30, President Reynders was given the 2021 W. Edwards Deming Business Leadership and Entrepreneurial Excellence Award in recognition of his vision and leadership in the Siouxland region. But it was what came next that rocked my world.
The evening focused on a celebration of our veterans and members of our Armed Forces, with keynote speaker Melissa Stockwell, who has written a book, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion. Stockwell captivated the audience by sharing her story. Melissa was a 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, deployed to Baghdad in March 2004 as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Three weeks after Stockwell arrived in Iraq, an IED roadside bomb exploded under the Humvee in which she was riding. A combat medic pulled her out from under the vehicle.
Stockwell wrote, “‘I’m hurt!’ I screamed out. Then I was gone. As soon as I screamed, I passed out. It was quick, probably only ten to fifteen seconds. It was the strangest experience. I went to the most beautiful vibrant place, full of pink and purple flowers. It was the happiest, the most joyous place that I had ever experienced.
“Then I resurfaced. Sergeant Pavich, a combat medic, was pulling me out of the vehicle by my bulletproof vest and laying me down on my back. He had been a few vehicles behind us and heard my scream.
“I had just been in my happiest place. Now I was trying to understand exactly where I was. It had been like a scene in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, where pretty music played, and everything was colorful and animated and full of life. I’m in Iraq. I was on the ground, I was hurt. Sergeant Pavich was working on me.”
Melissa, who was seriously injured, was transported in a military helicopter to a hospital for life-saving surgery. When she awoke, she learned that she had lost her left leg above the knee. In fact, Melissa was the first female in the US Armed Forces to lose a limb in active combat. Stockwell was eventually flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. for recovery and rehabilitation and to learn how to live with a prosthetic leg. She received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
But Stockwell found herself at a crossroads. Losing her left leg was not on her to-do list. How would Melissa reinvent her life? Would she become stuck in self-pity or decide to live her life fully? Would she lament what she had lost or focus on what she still had left? In confronting her own loss and self-pity, Melissa met many people at Walter Reed who had injuries that were far worse than hers. She marveled at their resiliency and learned that none of us has control over every aspect of our life. What we can control, however, is our attitude. Melissa decided to commit herself to those who offer their lives daily in the military, especially those deployed far from home. And, having been a competitive athlete since she was a little girl in swimming, tennis, and gymnastics, Melissa chose to devote herself to sports again.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2016, Melissa said, “Obviously, losing my leg was a traumatic event, but I had the power to choose how I went from there. So I chose to accept the loss of my leg, to be resilient through it and to make my life what I wanted it to be.”
Melissa became the first Iraqi war veteran to qualify for and participate in the Paralympics, which welcomes athletes who fit into six disability categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, visually impaired, spinal injuries, or other (not fitting into the other categories). Unlike the Special Olympics, athletes in the Paralympics must meet certain sport-specific qualifying standards.
Stockwell participated in three swimming events at the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing, China and was honored to carry the USA flag during the closing ceremonies. Subsequently, she made a transition into paratriathlons. Stockwell represented the United States in the 2010 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Budapest and won the Women’s TRI-2 (above knee amputee) class. In 2011 and 2012, she defended her TRI-2 World Champion title.
Melissa subsequently won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and was honored as Paratriathlete of the Year for two consecutive years. Today Melissa is married with two children. She is also a certified prosthetist and elite coach and has dedicated her life to service and giving back to others. In The Power of Choice, Stockwell shares life lessons that have shaped and formed her life.
- Stockwell affectionately calls her prosthesis “little leg.” On each anniversary of the attack, she acknowledges the injury and celebrates the life that she still has.
- Melissa’s hospital stay was the turning point. “I have a chance. I will deal with this.”
- We cannot change reality, but we can always choose how we will react to events beyond our control.
- There is great power and hope in the resilience of the human spirit. The enemy took Melissa’s leg, but they could not take her spirit.
- It doesn’t matter what you look like. By coaching kids, Melissa regained her confidence and self-worth.
- Find people you can trust and rely on.
- Give yourself credit. Maybe I CAN do this.
- There are two roads – determination or self-pity – recovery or giving up.
- There is power in perspective. Is it really this bad?
- Focus on what you still have and not on what you lost.
- Life is short, and dreams can come true.
- What matters the most is how we live and love and make a difference.
As Stockwell concluded her inspiring talk, the “MC” for the event came forward and announced to Melissa that they had a surprise for her. A man suddenly walked onto the stage and gave her a hug. It was Alex Pavich, the medic who stabilized and saved Melissa’s life after the bomb went off seventeen years ago. They have stayed in touch over the years but had not seen each other since that traumatic event. There was nary a dry eye in the audience.
Stockwell ends her book with these words, “We all have the power – to make our lives what we want them to be, and to feel like the luckiest people alive. We have the power to choose to embrace change instead of resisting it. We have the power to find motivation in our adversity. We can adapt and thrive in life. We have the power to take charge of our destinies, however difficult it might seem, and to live our lives in ways that make the stories we want to share with and inspire the world. I hope that my story helps you along your way.”
My hope is that Melissa Stockwell’s story inspires you. For you, too, can choose.
 Melissa Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, pp. 72-73.
 Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, p. 238.