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The Bush Institute Speaks with Melissa Stockwell about the Invisible Wounds of War
This year, the Bush Institute is launching a new initiative to raise awareness about the invisible wounds of war: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). A major focus of our work will examine how best to ensure veterans seek and receive effective treatment. We also will concentrate on strategies to eliminate barriers to care, including removing stigmas associated with these wounds. Because we know that the health and wellbeing of post-9/11 veterans is often complex, the Bush Institute has asked veterans to explain in their own words what it’s like to experience one or more of these injuries.
We start today with Melissa Stockwell, a member of Team 43 Sports, who has participated in the Warrior 100K. She spoke recently with the Bush Institute about how she came to understand the impact of the invisible wounds of war.
Can you tell us a little bit about your service? What made you want to join the military? What was your branch and rank, and where were you stationed?
I joined the military because I love our country. I wanted to give back to a country that has given me so much. In 2002, I was commissioned as a proud Second Lieutenant from the University of Colorado in Boulder and was assigned to the First Calvary Division in Fort Hood, Texas. I was deployed to Iraq in early 2004 and lost my leg soon after on April 13, 2004.
Did you know much about invisible wounds before you entered the military? If so, what did you know about them? What kind of stigmas are associated with invisible wounds within the military culture?
I did not know much about invisible wounds of war until I was injured and spent many months at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I think veterans with invisible wounds feel embarrassed or self- conscious about it. I think there is a tremendous amount of awareness needed as well as resources for anyone suffering from PTS or TBI so that veterans can admit they are suffering. Invisible wounds of war are a very real thing and in some ways, more devastating than the visible wounds of war.
In learning about invisible wounds, PTS and TBI, we know they affect everyone differently. We have also learned that the road to recovery looks a bit different for everyone affected by these wounds. Can you share with us what your recovery has been like? What helped you?
What was most helpful to me was surrounding myself with others that have gone through similar circumstances and people that love me and wanted to help me get better. I took opportunities that were presented to me early on in my recovery to prove to myself I could still do what I wanted to with just one leg. That allowed me to build my self-worth and helped me learn to believe in myself, a key element to recovery.
What role have sports and physical activities played in your recovery, both physically and mentally?
I proudly live a life of sport. Sports helped me recover both mentally and physically. Getting in the pool in the first few months after I lost my leg made me feel whole again. Skiing down a mountain on one leg taught me that I could still do anything I wanted. Crossing the finish line of the NYC marathon just months after my injury renewed my competitive spirit. Sports motivated me to see how far I could get and gave me confidence I couldn't have gotten anywhere else. Over the years, I have competed at the elite level and some of my proudest moments are wearing a USA uniform on the world’s biggest athletic stage. Even just getting out a few times a week and being active with friends and family can heal from the inside out.
What would you say to other veterans who are struggling with their transition, especially those who have not made the decision to seek help?
To let others help. To not be embarrassed if you need help and to reach out to the many people that want to be by your side to help ease the transition. It's not easy but you can and will get through it and find whatever it is your new normal is.
Ashley McConkey manages communications for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is responsible for message development on behalf of the Economic Growth, Human Freedom and Military Service initiatives.
Before joining the Bush Center, McConkey worked in the communications and public policy arena in Austin, Texas for both non-profit and corporate entities. She also served as a Budget and Policy Adviser to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.
McConkey grew up in Greenville, Texas and moved to Austin to study Political Science at St. Edward’s University. She and her husband reside in Dallas.Full Bio
Melissa Stockwell graduated from the University of Colorado in 2002 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army as part of the Transportation Corps. Two years later she deployed with the 1st Cavalry Division to Baghdad, Iraq. On April 13, 2004, Stockwell was on a routine convoy when her HUMVEE was hit by a roadside bomb. The blast resulted in the amputation of her left leg above the knee and she became the first female to ever lose a limb in active combat.
After a year of rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Stockwell was medically retired with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. She quickly adapted into a life of sports and went on to swim in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics before turning to the sport of triathlon in 2009. Stockwell is a 3x Paratriathlon World Champion and a recent bronze medalist from the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Stockwell loves giving back to the multisport community and is the co-founder of the Chicago based Dare2tri Paratriathlon club where she helps get other athletes with disabilities into the sport of triathlon. She currently serves on the USAT Womens Committee and is a trustee with the USAT Foundation.
Currently, Stockwell travels the nation for her career as a motivational speaker. Companies such as General Motors, BP, the Chicago Bears, Coldwell Banking, Deloitte and many more, have praised her speech as “inspirational, unforgettable and leaving the audience wanting to better every aspect of their life.” In 2015, she gave a TEDx talk in Vail and brought the crowd to their feet.
Stockwell is a proud above the knee amputee, a proud American and proudly lives a life of sport. She feels she has done more in her life with one leg than she ever would have done with two.
She is married to her husband, Brian, and together they have their son, Dallas Patrick, and their daughter Millie Lynn. Stockwell has dreams of making it to one more Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
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