Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Full Circle

How many full circle moments do you get in life?  Or how many do you get that make such a profound impact it changes your entire perception on life?  I can't imagine that we get that many, so when one comes I try to hold on to it for as long as I can, truly relishing its impact.

A few weeks ago I finally had my first race guiding Patricia, and it was everything it was cracked up to be, and then some.  I have to pinch myself that this amazing opportunity just sort of fell in my lap (to read more check out I expected this weekend to be an incredible experience, but it turned into so much more for reasons I could have never anticipated. In order for me to really explain, I am going to have to go back a bit.
I deployed to Baghdad, Iraq on 1 Jan 2004 (Happy New Year!). As the first reinforcement unit in for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2, we had to get used to the idea that we would be a sustaining force in Iraq. What this meant was that this would not be a quick deployment, looking to be over a year long, and sure enough, I came back home a (long) 14 months later.

During my time in Iraq we had to get used to the idea of being there longer, but at the same time, so did our opposition. Each month the insurgency grew stronger and more organized. When we first got to Camp Victory Base South, we relieved V Corps out of Germany. I remember the exiting Battalion Commander joking around that the "indirect" fire from the opposition was just that...not direct. He laughed about how their antiquated mortars and rockets never landed anywhere in the base camp because it never made it over the walls that separated us from "out there." Sadly, by the end of that deployment this was no longer a joking matter. Not only did they learn to fire over the wall, they had our Life Support Areas dialed in and we had several KIAs by the time my unit left.

Also during that time the rate of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devise...or as the media call it "road side bombs") also increased dramatically. My job didn't require me to leave the base camp often, but when I did I can't describe the anxiety involved being on the roads. The lack of control, the not knowing and being such an easy target just ate at you. There were a few routes we deemed as "safer," particularly Route Irish around the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport. Both of these places were not far and we often drove these roads for various missions. 

Every morning my Battalion would have a meeting to go over updates of any pertinent information around base camp. We were later called the "Special Troops Battalion," which basically meant we kept the place running.  Water in, power, water out were our biggest missions.  We also made sure every soldier, sailor, airman, and civilian had a place to eat, sleep, and work.  It was a big mission that never left you bored or without work to do. 
One particular morning the Executive Officer from the medical detachment that attended our meeting came in. I wish I could remember his name- he was usually one of the most upbeat people and those are the kind of people you want to be around. In the civilian world he worked as a trauma nurse. He always had a smile and would tell us stories that would have us laughing at the absurdity. 

This particular morning he wasn't himself. It was early in the deployment, early April. When it was his turn to give his unit's update, he looked on the edge of tears and was visibly shaken. He explained that the loud explosion we heard during the night turned out to be an IED. A convoy had hit it. The convoy had hit the IED on the "safer" road by BIAP, right down the street from us. At that point he explained that the casualty was a female, a young Lieutenant. They brought her to our base camp for immediate medical aid and that they were able to stabilize her, but they couldn't save her leg. His face when he said, “We couldn’t save her leg,” was the face of someone overcome with grief and guilt, his eyes glazed over in total defeat. They then were able to move her to the Green Zone to the bigger medical facility.  

The whole room was silent. The room was in shock. This was right out our front door. This was by the airport. Nothing is safe. No one is safe. The threat is real and it’s all around us.  IEDs don't care if you are young or old. They don't care if you're an officer or enlisted. They don't care if you're a man or a woman. They don’t care if you are a good person.  They don’t care if you have a family or that one day you want to have kids.  They don’t care that you have hopes and dreams; that when you get home you want to race as a professional triathlete.  

A young female junior officer- that could be me.  

My earliest memories are running in the backyard, racing my brothers.  Literally running to school late, running in track meets beginning at the ripe age of 4.  I ran myself to and through college where I qualified for NCAA's and was the cross country team captain.  This body got me an appointment to West Point and later graduated and took a commission as an officer in the United States Army.  It has jumped out of airplanes (Airborne!) and ran alongside countless unit runs with countless soldiers.  This body took up triathlon. It had already raced in Slovenia, Estonia, The Netherlands, Mexico, and I was just at the tip of my triathlon career.  This body, these legs…they have given me so much, so many opportunities, so much joy.  My whole life I've been an athlete. What if it took my leg away? What would I do? Who would I be? I wouldn't want to live. I told my NCO if that happens to me I just want to die. Just let me die. How could I continue on with life? How could I live the life without that joy, the freedom that comes with running and all that this body does for me? I felt for this girl. I didn't know her, but my heart broke for her. To one day have everything intact, and the next day have your leg missing. I couldn't imagine and I didn't want to. It was simply unimaginable. 

I thought of that girl from time to time over the last 11 years...just a fleeting thought. She was the first female amputee in combat. On occasion I wondered how her life turned out.  After being more involved with amputees I knew that prosthetics had come a long way in recent years.  I hoped this afforded her to have some normalcy in her life. 

So here I am in Detroit with Patricia, 11 years later. We had a mix up with hotels and we were waiting for our bags when Patricia wanted to introduce me to someone. She's with a girl who stands up and shakes my hand and I immediately notice it's a "firm" handshake, and I knew she had to be an Army gal.  We know those handshakes. She's wearing aviators and she's a very pretty girl with her hair pulled back. She has a baby, and Patricia is holding him as he smiles and laughs.  She says, "Hi, I'm Melissa," as she stands up. She's wearing shorts and only then do I notice she's wearing a prosthetic, a very patriotic red, white and blue leg. I also notice that she's an above the knee amputee, which in my limited knowledge I realize creates quite a few more obstacles than below the knee amputees. We chat a few minutes until she and her husband leave for dinner. 

Patricia immediately tells me that Melissa was in fact in the Army. My first question was, "Was she an officer?" For some reason I just felt like I knew...I knew this was the young female officer that had such an impact on all of us that day and for the remainder of our deployment. Her experience haunted me every day as the threat level grew each day in Iraq. Patricia was unsure, so I looked her up. And sure enough it was. Melissa Stockwell. All this time, and I never knew her name. It feels like you should know the name of someone like this, the first female amputee in combat.  It feels like everyone should know the name Melissa Stockwell.
And let me tell you, her life didn't stop.  What makes Melissa remarkable was not that fateful day. She isn't alive and well, she is alive and well and thriving. It turns out our lives had just missed each other on several occasions. Not only were we neighbors in Iraq, she came to the Olympic Training Center to train for the paralympics just as I was leaving due to my pregnancy.  She was actually the first Iraq veteran chosen for the Paralympics and was even the U.S. team’s flag bearer in the 2008 closing ceremonies.  She then focused on becoming a Paralympic triathlete, competing in the 2010 World Champs and is well on her way to the Rio 2016 Paralympics. She also co-founded Dare2Tri, a triathlon club specifically for athletes with disabilities.  On top of it she’s served on the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project from 2005-2014.

I got to sit and chat  with Melissa. It was surreal for me. Here I was, more than a decade after the incident, talking with the person that actually had to face my biggest nightmare. A fear that constantly consumed me in Iraq. She was interested to hear from my point of view. She explained that family and friends have told her about when they found out the news she lost her leg. But she rarely has heard from another soldier's point of view of a few hours after the IED. Our lives were so very close it seems odd that we were only just now meeting. Regardless, I'm so very glad that we finally did.
I looked at Melissa and realized how young and immature I was to think that I would want to die if I were in her shoes. Calling Melissa an inspiration doesn't do her justice.  War takes so much from us, some more than others.  If you really get down to it, everyone in this life faces adversity.  It's going to be hard.  There are times you really consider giving up.  But there is one thing that you can look at Melissa and remember:  it can't take away hope.  It can't take away courage.  It can't take away the willingness to become a better version of yourself.  Those are always inside of you.  Do you want to be the person that rolls over and plays dead, calling defeat?  Or do you want to be the person that chooses to keep on living.  It's okay to be knocked down, but you don't have to stay down.  Melissa puts on her patriotic prosthetic each morning and proceeds to kick ass.  That is in all of us...that ability to stand back up and say today we don't give up.  It's amazing what you can accomplish when you choose not to limit yourself.  What a gift to see Melissa running out on the course to remind of this, with her husband and son cheering.  Yeah, that girl I thought of every now and then for a little over a decade...I think it's safe to say she's doing just fine.