By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
COLORADO SPRINGS -- Melissa Stockwell bobbed in the water at one end of the pool at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, peering through swimming goggles at her coach, Jimmy Flowers, on the pool deck. The day's first training session was under way, and Flowers called for a kicking drill.
He tossed Stockwell a training fin and she slipped it underwater, pulling it on her right foot. She did not need a second.
Nearly four years ago, most of Stockwell's left leg was blown off by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The injury to the Army first lieutenant required 15 operations and nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Stockwell swam laps as part of her rehabilitation and learned that her Purple Heart and bronze star did not have to be the only medals she claimed while serving her country.
In the hospital's physical therapy center just months after the explosion, she encountered John Register, a U.S. Olympic Committee official and himself an amputee. Register pitched the opportunities within the Paralympic movement and this summer's Paralympic Games, a global competition for athletes with disabilities that will take place immediately after the Olympic Games in Beijing.
"As soon as I heard about it, I knew I was going to do it," Stockwell said.
Stockwell, 27, is one of more than a dozen disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- seven of whom now are living and training full time at USOC training facilities -- hoping to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic squad. Founded after World War II as part of a rehabilitation program for injured veterans, the Paralympics over time came to be populated predominantly by athletes who were born with disabilities or disabled much of their lives. But more than 31,000 service members have been injured in combat in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, invigorating what has proved to be an inextricable relationship.
"It's really the Paralympic movement going back to its roots," said Register, who has visited Walter Reed more than a dozen times since the start of the Iraq war. "Some of these individuals, they're going to make the team."
USOC Paralympic Chief Charlie Huebner estimates that between four and 10 disabled veterans, nearly all of whom were introduced to the Paralympics during one of Register's visits to military hospitals or at subsequent invitational camps, will qualify for the 240-person U.S. Paralympic team this summer. Huebner said war veterans eventually could make up 10 to 15 percent of the team, but probably not until the 2012 Summer Games in London.
Only one U.S. war veteran competed in the Paralympics in Athens four years ago.
Stockwell sensed the size of her mission to make the U.S. team from the start. It took her months to get used to her new body, making her way through Walter Reed's corridors at first by wheelchair, then on crutches and finally with the aid of her new prosthetic leg. Now she is training furiously in a sport in which many top athletes have competed for years or even decades.
In January, Stockwell packed her bags and moved to the Olympic Training Center here to prepare for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials April 3-5 in Minneapolis, leaving behind her husband, who is attending medical school in Chicago.
She plans to compete in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle and the 100 butterfly.
Once her morning workout concluded, Stockwell pulled herself out of the pool and sat for a moment on the deck catching her breath, the six inches or so that remain of her left leg exposed.
"When I found out I had a second chance to go over and represent my country, I had to take it," she said later. "I went to Iraq in an Army uniform. It would be great to go back in a USA uniform."'Your Leg Is Gone'
The quilt dotted with American flags that covered her bed and the massive flag on her wall during her childhood years in Georgia and Minnesota help explain why the daughter of Dave and Marlene Hoffman voluntarily joined the Army ROTC program as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. While other kids dreamed of becoming doctors, professional athletes or movie stars, she aspired to wear camouflage and a U.S. crest.
"When someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be in the Army," said Stockwell, whose father worked as a financial officer and mother stayed at home. "My parents always thought it was a phase I was going through."
On her college graduation day in May 2002, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant. In a matter of months, she had married fellow soldier Dick Stockwell, and both were on their way to Iraq. Her job in the Baghdad suburb of Taji was to lead supply convoys between U.S. installations.
On the night of April 12, 2004, she called her family. Her father recalled the optimism in her voice. She said she was safe, and the coming weeks would bring a welcome change: She would be carting supplies to and from the Green Zone, the fortified center of the Iraqi government and the U.S. diplomatic mission in the center of Baghdad.
The next morning, she and four others piled into a door-less Humvee for a test run to the Green Zone. She was so excited about the new route, she took a camera with her, hoping to take pictures of the most scenic part of the city. She sat behind the driver and swung her left leg outside of the vehicle in order to better be able to handle her rifle in an emergency. She rode, as she always did, with her finger on the trigger of her M16.
About 10 minutes into the tour, she recalled, there was a deafening explosion. Someone screamed "IED! IED!" The Humvee swerved. The windshield, she noted, cracked. The vehicle bounced off a guardrail and rammed a house.
Still conscious, she looked down and saw blood all over her pants.
A medic in the vehicle traveling behind hers cut her out of her seat belt and dragged her to the ground. He tied a tourniquet tightly around her left leg, just above her knee. Stockwell tried wiggling her toes, convincing herself she could feel them.
She was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and rushed to a U.S. hospital, where she was wheeled into an operating room. When she opened her eyes hours later, her husband sat at her bedside.
"I think something happened to my leg," she said.
He took her hand.
"It's gone," he said. "Your leg is gone."A Recruiting Pitch
During his frequent trips to Walter Reed and other military hospitals, the USOC's Register doggedly seeks out war veterans, approaching them as they are being stretched on physical therapy tables, knocking on the doors of their private rooms and chasing down wheelchairs carrying men and women missing arms or legs or both.
There is, he says, a place for all of them in the Paralympic movement, living a healthy lifestyle, playing sports and getting past their trauma and physical loss. Register, though, holds a special passion for the Games themselves. A former University of Arkansas hurdler who lost his left leg in a freak hurdling accident in 1994, Register competed in the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, then won a silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney.
His biggest reward, he admitted, would be if a few exceptional soldiers turned their debilitating injuries into Paralympian opportunities. "It's a very quick learning curve," Register said. "They're active. They're athletic. They've been in combat. They're in very good physical condition. They can turn that corner very quickly."
Enthusiasm, Register said, grows quickly. During rugby demonstrations at the military hospitals, quadriplegic athletes smash into one another in special chairs with abandon. When the basketballs are rolled out, there are brilliant three-point shots, impressive three-man weaves and jarring collisions.
The newly disabled soldiers, Register said, always want to try after they see such displays.
"I tell them, 'Here's this great opportunity if you allow it to challenge you,' " he said. " 'I've been where you are. You are able to move yourself forward.' "
He said Stockwell is among the toughest of the lot. Besides devoting herself to swimming, a sport she had competed in only casually in her childhood, she completed a marathon in a special racing wheelchair and a triathlon. She also dabbled in downhill skiing.
"I sensed I was not going to have to spend a lot of time with her," he said. "She had it. I knew right away this woman was ready to go."
In preparation for the trials, Stockwell spends most of her waking hours in the pool or weight rooms at the Olympic Training Center. During a recent morning workout, she swam alongside a blind teenager, a teenager with spina bifida, a man missing both legs and a woman with only one functional arm. None, however, had been injured in war.
"The guys really respect her," said Flowers, her coach. "They know what she's been through, and what she's done."
But he added: "This isn't Camp Olympia. You're here for a reason. . . . She does have a lot of room to improve. She has to improve."
That night, Stockwell walked with a limp to an athletes' lounge on the training center campus. Her metal prosthesis was hidden by her sweat pants and a running shoe. She would be homesick, she said, if she weren't so busy. She knew the exact number of days remaining before her Paralympic trials. She didn't have much time to drop her times.
"Every weight you lift counts," she said "Every practice counts."
But whether she makes it to Beijing or not, Stockwell seems to realize she already has found a new purpose in life.
"I've done more without a leg," she said, "than I ever did with two."