Healing The Wounds Of War

New Population Of Wounded Veterans Emerges

This story originally aired on Feb. 12, 2006. It was updated and revised on May 28, 2006.

On this Memorial Day weekend, 60 Minutes takes another look at some young men and women — soldiers — who were severely wounded in action in Iraq. Most fell victim to roadside bombs, those lethal IEDs that battered their brains or blew off their arms and legs.

As Mike Wallace reports, many of them would have died in earlier wars. But they survived in Iraq thanks to better battlefield medicine. They also survived because of their remarkable resilience — their inner strength and determination to make the most of a future that's not at all what they'd expected when they signed up.

Melissa Stockwell always wanted to be a soldier. But living out her dream meant patrolling in Iraq in Humvees, with no armor and no doors.

While on patrol, a roadside bomb blew off Melissa's left leg.

"It didn't register that my leg was gone. I just saw blood on my leg. So I said, 'I'm hurt. Something happened to my leg. I think I'm hurt,'" she remembers.

Melissa says her leg felt as if it was burning. When a tourniquet was put on to stop the bleeding, she says she really felt the pain. "And that's also when I kinda thought to myself, 'OK, maybe something's really wrong,'" she says.

"For just like literally three or four seconds I blacked out and I, it's very vivid still, what I remember," Melissa recalls. "It was pink and purple flowers. You know it was I remember for those couple seconds I was really happy. I was just so happy. And then I woke up being pulled out of the vehicle. It took me a couple of seconds to realize, you know, 'This is real. I'm not around pink and purple flowers.'"

They tried calling for a medivac, the helicopter that comes to pick up casualties. But the frequency wasn't working, and they couldn't get through.

So they had to drive her to the hospital — and while she underwent surgery, her husband arrived. He was also a soldier serving in Iraq.

"I looked at him and I said, 'I think something happened to my leg.' And he just held my hand and he said, 'It's gone. Your leg is gone,'" Melissa recalls. "And that's when I found out."

That was also when she realized she couldn't be a soldier anymore.

"And you wonder, 'Like what's my life gonna be like now?'" Melissa says. "Every amputee at one point or another has to make a decision: Do you live in the past and wonder why me and all that kinda thing? Or do you just accept it and move on? And I think I accepted it really early on, that I'm not gonna get my leg back. So I'm just gonna go on."

Melissa is full of enthusiasm for her country, her life … and now, her new leg.

Her prosthetic leg goes all the way up to her hip. Getting her new leg helped Melissa find a new calling: She is studying to be a prosthetist, to help other amputees.

"So when someone first gets injured and loses a limb, they'll come into my office and I will fit them for their prosthetic arm or leg, whatever it may be," she says. "Before I got hurt, I didn't even know what a prosthetist was."

Melissa says she now hopes to inspire other amputees. "You're a soldier, you get injured and your life doesn't end. You can have a prosthetic leg. And you can get up every day, put your leg on, have a normal day."

"Normal" for Melissa means swimming five days a week. Many amputees stay active to prove to themselves that losing a limb cannot hold them back.