Paralympic Games Rekindle Passions of Army Vets

By Eugene, Toni | Army, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Paralympic Games Rekindle Passions of Army Vets


Eugene, Toni, Army


'Melissa Stockwell always loved the water. But the dream of an Army career was even more enticing, and as a diver on her high school swim team, Stockwell never lost sight of her long-term goal and was eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation from the University of Colorado in 2002. A few months later, she married fellow Army officer Dick Stockwell, and in March 2004 the two deployed to Iraq.

Less than two months in country, as Stockwell was leading a routine supply convoy in an unarmored Humvee, an improvised explosive device blasted the vehicle and blew off most of her left leg. During nearly a year of treatment, which included 15 operations that took an additional 6 inches off her leg, she started swimming laps as part of her physical therapy. Awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, she was medically retired from the Army in 2005. In time, the water once again became her passion, and the Paralympic Games her goal.

Last January, Stockwell moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the swimming trials in April, she earned a coveted spot on the U.S. Paralympic team, setting a U.S. record in the 400meter freestyle with a time of 5 minutes, 3.08 seconds. At the Can-Am Championships in Victoria, British Columbia, in July, Stockwell broke the American record in the 50-meter butterfly with a time of 35.18 seconds. She swam three events in Beijing: women's 100-meter butterfly, women's 100-meter freestyle and women's 400-meter freestyle.

Stockwell was one of eight U.S. Army veterans to compete in this year's Paralympics, which were held September 6-17 in Beijing. She was also one of only two veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom to ever compete in the games.

The other is Scott Winkler, who joined the Army when he was 21 and began his military career in 1994 as a cook stationed in Korea. He left the Army in the late 1990s, but two years later rejoined at Fort Stewart, Ga. In 2003, while working as a driver with the 3rd Infantry Division in Tikrit, Iraq, Winkler fell from a truck while off-loading ammunition. His foot stuck in a strap while his torso twisted, and he injured his spinal cord. Immediately after the accident, Winkler underwent extensive rehabilitation and could walk for a time. Months later, however, doctors discovered lesions on his spine that necessitated invasive surgery. Winkler woke from the operation paralyzed from the waist down.

"For a long time I went through a lot of depression," Winkler told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Finally, I said, 'Enough is enough.'" A sprinter in high school, Winkler got involved with wheelchair sports when some friends invited him to play basketball. In 2006, he attended a U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) camp for disabled veterans in Colorado Springs. The USOC Paralympic Military Program introduces disabled veterans to sports techniques and opportunities at camps twice a year, where Paralympic athletes and coaches conduct clinics. Winkler had trained after his accident, and coaches at the camp quickly noticed his upper-body strength and potential in the shot put, discus and javelin. In 2007, Winkler set a world adaptive (adaptive athletes are those who are disabled) shot-put record with a throw of 10.23 meters.

The Paralympic Games are a parallel event to the Olympics for athletes with physical, mental and sensory disabilities, including amputations, blindness and cerebral palsy. Athletes who compete are grouped according to the type of disability and are classified depending on the level of impairment and the sport in which they are competing. Classification imposes a structure that allows the athletes to compete against others with similar levels of physical function or similar disabilities. It serves much as weight classes or age categories do to level the playing field in able-bodied sports.

The Paralympic Games were created for veterans, with wheelchair basketball the flagship sport. To coincide with the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Dr. …

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