SPC Melissa Sacia Leuck (Army, OIF Veteran)
The project’s goal within the greater context of the work is to highlight veterans of foreign wars and their time in sacrificial service to their nation. It makes even more sense then, when some of these veterans have been assisted by some incredible organizations; to place a spotlight on those organizations as well. We first met Lynn Coffland, Founder of Catch A Lift Fund, a few months back through a mutual contact. Lynn’s heart in servitude of our nation’s finest was immediately apparent. She’d lost a brother (RIP CPL Chris Coffland) in combat, a painfully ever-present reminder of what sacrifice truly looks like. Through this pain, she’d forged a new path and went on to found CAL (Catch A Lift), creating an environment of healing through fitness. One of the first introductions Lynn made, was to an Army veteran with a profoundly painful, yet redemptive story named, “Melissa Sacia Leuck.” Melissa’s life path is a powerful representation of our collective individuality as a nation, but even more so within the veteran community. Very few recognize the vastly diverse backgrounds of our Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen.
Melissa’s testimony was jaw-dropping in its’ passionate honesty and harshly, turbulent truths. Her time in service was a jarring reminder that everyone’s journey is unique; and for some, uniquely painful. When you’re reading Leuck’s words understand that even through some of the horrors she experienced, she was still remarkably grateful to serve our nation in its’ ongoing Global War On Terror. Her reality overseas, presented a completely complex type of terror; one that no soldier should ever endure on the battlefield. Still, if you spoke with Melissa you’d see a distinctively adept war-fighter who has taken the deepest of scars and transformed them into purposeful passion in a new arena. This transformation is present in every single part of her life as a loving wife and mother. We’d like to thank Catch A Lift Fund for sponsoring Melissa for this particular project, and offering her a platform that is hopefully healing in its’ own respects. We’ll let her take it from here.
Can you tell me about your life growing up and led you to the Army?
MSL: I grew up in a very loving family with my mom, dad, and two older sisters in the rolling hills of rural west central Wisconsin. My family raised Belgian draft horses and I had a flock of sheep. From a young age I was always involved with animals. In the summers I would show horses and sheep through 4H and FFA at the fairs. In the winter months my time was wrapped up helping my dad with the mares foaling and sheep lambing. I come from a very proud Army family. My dad served in the Wisconsin Army National Guard in the 32nd Infantry Division. My dad also went to Ranger school and earned a Ranger tab. I wanted to be like my dad and do the things he did. My dad had four brothers who served in the Army. My uncle Tom who is also my Godfather is a Vietnam War veteran. My grandfather Elmer Peterson was a World War II veteran and served in the Pacific Theater.
I always knew the Army was my calling. I was in 10th grade when 9/11 happened. I was on my way to school when I heard on the radio the first tower had been hit. I arrived at school and watched on the television the second tower being hit. That moment stuck with me hard. If there were any doubts that I was going to be in the Army they were all wiped clean at that point. I signed my enlistment papers at 17 years old on the day the invasion into Iraq began. It was also my moms birthday. My senior year I had enough school completed that I was able to leave a semester early and I left for basic training in January of 2004. My mom and dad were both very supportive and proud of my decision to serve my country. I remember getting a letter from my dad every single day in basic training. He signed every letter “Stay strong and remember you have Army Ranger in your blood.” I would continue to get these letters all through my time in Iraq.
I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training. I was there January through May. I enlisted at that time as a 42 Alpha which is a Human Resource Specialist because that was the spot that was open in my local National Guard unit. When I got home from training in late May I went back to my unit and went on full time temporary orders. I was in the headquarters of the 732nd Maintenance Battalion. The 1158th Transportation Company was going to be deployed to Iraq and we knew about that before they did. It was a 300 man HET Transportation Company and there were many open slots that needed to be filled for 88Ms (Motor Transport Operator). Soldiers would be getting kicked up off the IRR (Individual Ready Reserve). I had this patriotic and idealistic mindset that I would potentially be saving a mother from having to leave her kids by volunteering to go. I was 18 years old, single, and didn’t have any kids. I didn’t want them to pull someone from the IRR to go drive a truck when I was able to. I made that decision very quickly. I informed my unit and they began the paperwork. In July 2004 I went to Fort McClellan, Alabama and reclassified as an 88M. Fort McClellan was being used as a training base for mostly re-class transportation soldiers getting ready to deploy. I learned to drive a M915, which is basically a tractor with flatbed trailer that is similar to a civilian semi. I was in Alabama for a few weeks. In October of 2004, I joined my new unit and left for Fort Benning, Georgia. That’s where we did our training for deployment. During the two months I spent at Fort Benning, I had my first training driving the M1070 HET (Heavy Equipment Transporter).
Can you talk a little about your parents and how they raised you? How’d that better prepare you for the Army life?
MSL: Both my mom and dad are incredibly hard working people who have always worked long hours and never complained. Growing up, what I saw from my them was day in and day out they simply did what needed to be done for our family without complaint. My parents raised me in a strong Catholic family and instilled a faith in God that has served to be my biggest comfort in my darkest days. No matter how bad things ever became in my life I simply drove on and did what needed to be done. Through it all I kept and grew my faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ and I have never stopped thanking God for getting me through the day. I’m forever grateful to my parents for their love, compassion, and the gift of faith that they instilled in me from a young age.
Can you talk about getting deployed to Iraq and how you felt about going?
MSL: I think that the overwhelming feeling about deployment was excitement. I was super gung ho for the mission and truly believed we were there to do good. I was proud and excited but had no idea what I was in store for. I don’t remember the flight over but I remember landing in Kuwait. They put us on these big buses which took us to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait on Christmas Eve. We traveled with one duffel bag and the rest of our gear was coming over on a ship. It was very late when we got to our tents. I remember that first night going out for a walk around Camp Arifjan which was very large. I walked around the camp and I remember feeling completely alone. It hit me that it was Christmas Eve and I was away from my family with a very uncertain year ahead of me. It felt like a foreshadowing of what was to come. My unit was still a fairly new to me. We had been together at Fort Benning but it was a very busy time preparing for deployment while there. That feeling of complete lonesomeness would resurface at different times during the deployment and continues to plague me to this day.
Where did you deploy to in Iraq?
MSL: Our home camp was Arifjan, Kuwait and I was there very little. The mission was to haul new equipment including mostly tanks and other armored vehicles out of the port of Kuwait and deliver it anywhere and everywhere in Iraq. We would then haul armored equipment that had been blown up in Iraq back to Kuwait to be shipped back to the US. This needed to be done because the up armor is classified and can't be left behind. We would be on the roads of Iraq in convoys for 7-14 days at a time. The turnaround was very quick once we got back to Kuwait. We would get our laundry done, get the trucks back up to working order, resupply food, water then head back out on the road. Most of the time this was accomplished within a two day period. It was 12 months of nothing but driving convoys all over Iraq. The HET (Heavy Equipment Transporter) have the driver’s seat, co-driver’s seat and a backseat as well. The back seats flip up into a bunk bed. We ate, slept, and just plain lived in our trucks for a year. The tank crews when they would ride with us rode inside their tanks while we delivered them to wherever they needed to get.
What was the most nerve-wracking of that job for you?
MSL: Whenever we left on a convoy with equipment we would stay the night at Camp Navistar. Camp Navistar sits on the Kuwait side of the Kuwait/Iraq border. When we crossed the border we went to locked and loaded with our weapons. For the most part, we didn't have a lot of problems until we got around CSC Scania. The areas south of Scania were fairly benign for us to travel as long as we didn't have to leave the main supply routes. Scania was a natural destination for us because it was about a day’s trip from Navistar and it was a convoy support center. They had a wired off area where we could go park our trucks and get supplies. If we were lucky we could stay there for maybe a day, sometimes two. There were shops there run by Iraqi people selling cigarettes and bootleg DVDs. That was always a fun way to burn through some cash. The next day when we would leave it would get a little bit more hairy heading out. We would have situation reports everyday before pulling out on a convoy. This determined by times of day we could travel, the number of trucks we would send out together. It would give details on how hostile the area we would be traveling was expected to be. If the area was expected to be exceptionally dangerous for the convoy, the convoy would be broken down at this point into smaller, and smaller groups. The reality of the situation was that almost everyday more than likely someone was going to get hit by an IED on our mission. It was literally like Russian Roulette for whose day it was to get hit. We would take RPGs to the convoy, small arms fire, but the main weapon used to attack our convoys was the IED.
I think early on the “oh shit” wake up moment would have been in early February. We did our convoys with TCN’s (Third Country Nationals), because we didn’t have enough Army trucks and soldiers to complete the missions. We would have one Army truck which was our HET followed by 3 TCNs. Then there would be another HET followed by the 3 TCNs. This pattern repeated itself for the entire length of convoy. The Army truck had two soldiers in every truck. There was the driver and the assistant driver. They were responsible for themselves, the HET, the load, and the three TCN’s behind them along with their loads. Anyways, we were on a mission and one of the TCNs hit an IED and they had no up armor on their cabs, no body armor, helmets, or weapons. We had “hillbilly armor” on our trucks and obviously we were equipped with flak jackets, helmets, and rifles. When the TCN hit the IED it went right through the cab which killed the driver. That’s a moment that stood out to me then and still does now. I learned after that point when a TCN dies or is injured it doesn’t matter and no one gives a damn. We still had to move the load and get the hell out of there.
Ever since I came home I've struggled with feelings of guilt associated with the deaths, injuries, and treatment of the TCNs that I drove side by side with. When I first got home I tried to tell people about the TCNs and the fact that there was this group of people who I drove side by side with dying and getting badly injured that no one even knew about. I tried to research and find actual statistics on the deaths but I never could find anything. It was like the TCNs didn't exist or were a ghost population that no one was aware of, and quite frankly no one wanted to hear about either. Eventually I stopped talking about the TCNs altogether. It's hard for me to explain now. I have thoughts of “Thank God it was them and not us,” but then I think “What's wrong with me, what kind of person thinks that way?” As a Christian, as a mother, as a human being the moral injuries from the war are very hard for me to lay to rest.
Where were you headed and what was the mission?
MSL: We were near LSA Anaconda headed back south with our back load. It was early morning and we needed to cross an intersection. We were the lead truck with one gun truck out ahead of us. We were approaching this median and I could see a bit ahead of us there was a gravel pile. There were a couple of chem sticks that had been thrown out by it to mark it. I was getting ready to call it in to the convoy commander. I was the assistant driver on the mission. In the blink of an eye the all too familiar concussive blast happened. It was a daisy chain explosion meaning consecutive bomb blasts that were connected. It hit our HET behind the cab on the drivers side and I got thrown into the door hitting my head. I could feel the shock and power of the blast through my entire body. I felt my brain just rattle inside my head, my body shook. It was like a wake up moment where you have to get back to reality very quickly and look around. Our truck had been hit but my driving partner and I were both okay to continue to drive. Our SOP (standard operating procedure) was once you were hit if you are able to, continue rolling through the kill zone. Our truck was still rolling and we made it probably five miles up the road before we had to stop the convoy.
The first IED hit our HET, the TCNs behind us were fine. My good friend was four trucks back and her truck hit another one of the IEDs. The third bomb blast didn’t hit a vehicle. Everyone lived. This was the 7th of November. It was part of three or four consecutive days where we were just getting hammered really hard with small arms fire, and IEDs. It was just day after day. A couple days prior to my HET getting hit by the IED we were quite far north in Iraq and we were driving at night as the lead HET. Next thing I know we see tracer rounds and a couple minutes later we took small arms fire to our windshield. I never saw a person. It was just pitch black out and bullets were hitting our windshield. That's what it was like though. There was rarely a visible enemy for us. We would just get hit.
We would usually travel with three gun trucks with one being up ahead. There would be one in the middle and one in the rear. We very rarely had additional support as far as any overhead coverage or ground armor support. I remember several times riding with the convoy commander calling in for additional fire support or additional overhead coverage. It rarely could get to us in time. The maximum speed our HETs could travel was 45 mph because it’s governed at that speed. Then you take into account we were under heavy load and we were just big slow moving targets. The transportation units were incredibly understaffed. There wasn’t enough people to do the job. We kept driving through all of November and they pulled us off the road for a couple of weeks in early December to get us ready to head home.
Did everyone in your unit make it?
MSL: Every soldier lived. I attribute the survival of our unit to having up armored cabs despite the fact that we were big slow targets. The trucks took a hammering and stood up to it. When we first got there our trucks weren't up armored just some hillbilly armor on the doors that the mechanics welded on. Soon after we arrived in Kuwait our trucks began to leave in pairs and they came back up armored. It took a couple of months to get this done to all of the trucks but having the up armor saved a lot of lives.
Can you tell me about your back injury ?
MSL: Our trucks had a goose neck with stairs going up on them and we were in the process of chaining down a tank. We could also raise our trailer bed up higher. Our trailer was raised up and I had one foot on the steps and another foot on the bed of the truck. I got a little off balance while ratcheting chains. I lost my balance, fell backwards off the trailer onto the ground and landed on my back. It completely knocked the air out of me, I couldn’t breathe. I think I was just too stupid at the time to realize how bad I was injured. We were only a day into our mission and had just gotten the load picked up. I didn’t see another option other than to continue the mission. The pain was extreme. My flak jacket kept hitting the spot and just riding on where the injury was as we drove. I took the back plate out at one point because the pain had become unbearable due to the truck being so bumpy. I ended up rolling up my sleeping bag and shoving it behind my back to try and support it in the truck.
When I got back to Kuwait I went to the troop clinic they gave me muscle relaxers and pain pills but didn’t do any type of imaging. I took those pills pretty steady for a period of time. When it happened I was afraid of being taken off the road. This was always my biggest fear. This was my mission and what I was there to do. It was my job so I dealt with the pain and continued to drive. I finally had imaging done and started physical therapy when I returned to Wisconsin.
Can you tell me about that day?
MSL: One of the hardest things I went through when I was in Iraq was being raped by another soldier. At the time I was just desperately thinking “How can I survive this?” It was hard because we were on a mission where we were under constant threat on the road. The thought of me being raped was not something that was on my radar or something I was prepared for. I would have never imagined this was something that potentially could happen to me, but it did. I was afraid and ashamed that I had let something like this happen to myself. I kept thinking “you're a soldier, how could you let this happen? how could you be so weak?” I was trying to figure out how I had brought this on. Who do I go to with this? Who will believe me? What do I do? At the time I was a 19 year old PFC and one of a couple women out on this convoy. What do I do?
The answer at the time, right or wrong, was there is no one to go to. The only thing I could think about was surviving and putting this as far out of my head as possible. I couldn’t make sense out of what had happened to me and it really made me begin to doubt my worth not only as a soldier but a human being as well.
Did anyone know about this while you were out on this deployment?
MSL: I told no one and honestly never intended to. I was so very ashamed that this happened to me. At the time I knew no one else who had been raped in Iraq. I was trying to put it out if my head. It’s such a soul crushing and devastating experience to be raped. I lost all self worth and self love. The trauma of being raped in Iraq destroyed a part of me that I don’t know how to get back or if I ever will.
What would you say to women going through your same experience?
MSL: The first thing I would say is you are not alone. I would tell them it is still possible to find love in this world and to have someone love you unconditionally. Those things are still possible and you deserve them just as much as anyone else. I would say to them to find a way to have a mental and physical release. Don't let the hate and anger overtake you. My release is lifting weights. You have to find something though. Without the release you will drown in your mind. It’s extremely hard. People often say if they were in the same situation they would do things differently. I pray to God they are never in that situation to have to make those decisions for themselves.
What would you tell women to do?
MSL: It's critical that you get the necessary help you need, whatever that may be. I think every person responds differently to trauma and for that reason I would never claim to know what is best for anyone else in that situation.
How did you feel towards the Army after this happened ?
MSL: First and foremost, I still believe in the Army. The proudest thing I have done in my life is join the Army and serve my country in war. I would not trade serving my country for anything in the world. However, I also feel a disconnect from the Army and to some degree with other veterans with my trust being severed. I wasn’t strong enough when I was raped to come forward about it. This is why it’s so important to me now to find my true strength in what I’m doing. The driving force when I work out is a constant voice in my head saying, “I will never be a victim again, I will never let another person hurt me that way. This will never happen to me again. I will put everything I have into becoming physically and mentally stronger.” I don’t know if my view of the Army would be different if I had come forward at the time and let the situation play out in a judiciary setting. I was a soldier and I believed in the mission. I wanted to do my job and forget this terrible thing happened to me. I didn’t want to be pulled off the road and not be able to finish my tour driving. I was focused on doing my job as a soldier because that is what you do. It's hard for me to sit here now and dissect what I would have done differently. For years in my head, I obsessed over what I could have done differently. That obsession got me nowhere except more self hate. I cannot go back in time and I refuse to let myself dwell on something I have no control over.
How did you find some type of therapy and what helped you through those moments ?
MSL: I did so many different things treatment wise when I returned home from Iraq. I was in an 8 week inpatient recovery program for compound post traumatic stress from combat and military sexual trauma. I did outpatient programs along with groups at the VA. I have been on more prescription medications than I can count. I wasn't able to find any real relief. My individual life continued to deteriorate and my marriage to David needed serious intervention. Luckily both David and I were open minded enough to try marriage counseling at the VA shortly after we were married in 2007. We have been blessed with a terrific social worker who has helped David and I learn to effectively communicate. She has been able to work with us on how to function as a husband and wife along with the dynamic of David being my caregiver. This has not been a quick process and we still see her to continue to work on this.
David has always looked for more holistic natural approaches to my recovery. He and I would travel out west to the mountains. We have good friends with a hunting lodge in Dixie, Idaho. We would go there to hunt, fish, help with the pack trips and decompress. I felt moments while in those mountains of release. I think David was just desperately trying to help me find things i could do in my everyday life to find a release. The goal was always to get me to “feel”. I would go through and still do long periods of time where I would be completely detached from everyone even David. After we were married we brought my small flock of sheep to our farm. We also have added chickens, donkeys, and a pony. The animals have always served as a way to get me out of the house. The sheep lambing help get me out of the house in the winter and connect me back to something that I found joy in growing up. I find great comfort being around my donkeys. The donkeys have a unique ability to tune into my emotions. You have to spend time with them to understand the connection we share. When I am with them it is as if they are there offering to take my burden and sadness away.
Fly fishing and fly tying has been another thing I have used to aid in my recovery. I am blessed to live among the drift less trout streams of southwest Wisconsin. When I am on the water I can feel a calm come over me. Every time I release a trout back into the stream I feel like my world regains some of its color. David was always an avid fitness lover and always encouraged me to get back into shape. I would try through the years to get back into shape. I never really got overweight but I definitely got soft. I would start working out and do 30,60,90 days and I would quit. I just couldn’t keep with it. Depression would roll in hard or an anniversary date from Iraq would come and derail me for weeks or months. I was in constant head and back pain. It was me going from the bed to the couch and back again at the end of the day. After my daughter Anna was born I finally committed to working out every day because quite honestly I needed the mental break during the day.
I was struggling being a new mother along with trying to manage my mental and physical health as well as I could. I needed a way to feel proud of myself again. I started working out in my basement and for the first time I didn’t quit. It got to the point though where I was doing only HIIT cardio style workouts, they were intense workouts and I wasn’t eating nearly enough food to properly fuel my body. I never really looked in the mirror because I was afraid of what would be staring back at me. There finally came a day when I really looked at myself. I had been working out for quite some time and what I saw when I looked in the mirror was a gaunt hollow version of what I once was. I was in shock by my appearance but I forced myself to take it all in. It was in that moment that I experienced a mental switch in my brain. I told myself I will never do this again, I will never tear my body down, I will only build it up. It had never occurred to me before this point to be a bodybuilder or strength athlete. I had never seen it mirrored anywhere in my own life. The process I had undergone in my mind was symbolic of stripping myself of the old and starting the foundation of what I would become. From this point on the Iron became my therapy and my refuge.
How much did David help you during this time?
MSL: David has been my everything through my darkest days and he still is my everything. When David and I first got married he was dairy farming full time. When he would be gone working I wouldn’t get my medications taken, I didn’t understand how to take them. I couldn’t get to my appointments at the VA because driving was triggering my ptsd. I would forget to eat and drink in a day. It just wouldn't be in my mind. I was struggling with short term memory. David would get in from work at night and I would be in the same spot he left me in the morning. I was having problems managing my chronic back and head pain. All I wanted to do was lay in a dark room. It became evident shortly after David and I were married in 2007 that he was going to have to take on a larger role as a caregiver in my life.
David is the person that advocates for me to the doctors and nurses when I am unable to do so. He can honestly tell them on a day to day basis what is going on with me. I would become very frustrated with thinking I needed to always explain myself and he took on that role for me. He would get me outside to visit the animals and go for walks. He has been the person that has continually been there to keep me grounded during flashbacks and anxiety attacks. When I wake up scared out of mind in the night David gets up and sits with me. David has been there to talk me down, help me through it, and hold me when I needed to be held. Women are traditionally viewed as caregivers and David has been the one to take on that role in our family. I think the main thing he has taught me is that it’s all right to go through hard times and to not feel guilty about that. I felt guilt for so many years in this area. He’s had to take on so much in our home and that made me feel incompetent as a wife and mother. He’s worked to show me how much I do have to give to our family and this world. He has always believed in me and never gave up on me or our marriage.
How has Catch A Lift fund specifically helped you ?
MSL: I became a Catch A Lift veteran athlete in 2016 and I was at a turning point in my fitness journey. I was well committed into an established workout routine when I found Catch A Lift, a non profit organization that puts combat wounded post 9/11 vets into gyms and awards grants for home gym equipment. I had been working out six days a week at home for about a year at that time but I was transitioning into bodybuilding. When I started bodybuilding I needed more equipment for my gym but could not afford it. I was approved for a home gym grant with Catch a Lift. I thought this would be great if they could help me out with getting the equipment I needed. If they had provided the gym equipment and only that I still would have been eternally grateful to them. However, that wasn’t the case at all. It became evident as soon as I was accepted into the program that I was going to have people standing firmly behind me. This was not a “one and done” type of situation. They were there every step of my fitness journey and in any capacity I needed them to be as well. Catch A Lift is very good about screening their veterans to figure out exactly what they need to be successful. I needed support and connection to the outside world. They immediately set me up with a great squad leader to help me stay accountable and to help me with my isolation, Toni Grimes, from Phoenix Arizona. She would call monthly to check in on me and still does. We would have good conversations and I began to really look forward to our calls and that interaction.
It was the little reach outs like the Monday morning motivational text messages I would receive from CAL that made me feel as if I mattered, as if my life mattered to people outside of my family. It wasn’t long after my grant was funded that Lynn Coffland the founder and President of Catch a Lift emailed me to attend a Warrior Fit weekend in Westport Connecticut. I was out of my comfort zone and very apprehensive at first. I hadn't worked out with other people since the military and had done all of my training at home. I agreed to go and Lynn assured me it would be a life changing experience. When I arrived at Westport it became clear immediately that this would become a life changing experience for me. I took many things away from my first Warrior Fit weekend including being blown away by the tremendous support the citizens of Westport Connecticut showed to the Catch a Lift Veterans. We had group workouts with the people of the town. We laughed, we cried, we sweated together.
It was a reminder that we are all on the same team, civilians and veterans. Another thing I took away from that weekend was that there is still an opportunity to form the tribe that we lost after service. For so many years I felt such a complete disconnect from the civilian population as well as a disconnect from the veteran community because of the things that happened to me. I realized I can still find a place to belong. I think it highlighted also the need for more empowerment among the female veterans in the Catch a Lift organization. My own fitness journey had taught me that in order for it to be successful and long term it must be sustainable and something you enjoy. I wanted to make sure other women had this opportunity and understood there is more out there in the area of fitness than what you see on the cover of a “health” magazine. I talked with Lynn about this subject in depth along with telling her my story of my time in Iraq. This conversation turned into a call for action to empower Catch A Lifts combat wounded women to find there fit, regain the identity and tribe we lost after the military, and grow mentally and physically in a group atmosphere. This was the birth of Catch a Lift’s Women's Fitness Initiative.
Catch a Lift showed up for me in another big way when I decided to competitively pursue Strongman. Strongman was something I had always dreamed of pursuing but I had no direction or means to make this dream a reality. When I was ready CAL connected me with professional strongman Jerry Pritchett. I had the opportunity to train at Jerry's gym in Arizona with a few other vets. That was the first time I ever got to handle strongman implements and I was hooked. Jerry Pritchett has been coaching me, programming me, pushing me to new strength gains, and preparing me for strongman competitions ever since. CAL has provided me a nutritionist to get my diet tightened up so I can perform and recover properly from Strongman training. CAL has also helped me get the necessary equipment I need to train for Strongman. Quite honestly when I began this journey I didn't know if I was strong enough to pursue the sport of Strongman. Throughout this journey Catch a Lift has continually taught me the only limit to my strength is the limits I impose upon myself.
What are your goals with Catch A Lift going forward ?
MSL: My biggest goal with Catch a Lift is to continue to be as involved as possible with CAL’s Women's Fitness Initiative. I plan on continuing to reach out and speak to women veterans about where they are at in their individual journeys of recovery. I'm trying to help women find their “fit.” A fitness lifestyle that empowers them, is sustainable for them, and brings them happiness. I want every one of our CAL women to know that it's okay not to fit the mold of how society tells us to look and feel.
For myself, being able to reach out and help mentor other women through my fitness has been therapeutic for me as well. I’m able to have these connections with other female veterans and that is something I have missed in my life. That connection with other veterans is so important. I know other veterans miss this as well. My role as a Catch a Lift athlete and spokesperson is to bring awareness to the public on the struggles of the combat wounded veteran but also and more importantly the life changing positive impact fitness has on the recovery of the mind, body, and spirit of the veteran.
What specifically about Catch A Lift Fund makes it such a great organization?
MSL: The constant support and empowerment you receive from the entire organization as well as the Catch A Lift civilian supporters is amazing. When I was getting ready to compete in my first Strongman competition the amount of support I received from the veterans within the organization, everyone who works for CAL, the board of directors, and all the amazing people I met at the Westport Warrior Fit weekend was astounding and humbling. For my entire 14 week training block leading into my first competition I constantly had someone reaching out to me encouraging me, telling me how proud they were of me. At the end of the day CAL is always there to build you up and provide you with the individual tools it will take for you to accomplish your goals regardless of how big or small that goal is.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to join the Catch A Lift program?
MSL: I would tell any veteran to absolutely do it and get involved. Go into Catch A Lift with the mindset that physical fitness along with proper nutrition will work. Be honest because Catch A Lift needs to know where you are at in your individual journey. If you’re just now getting up off the couch and have no workout background that is okay. CAL will start you out on body-weight workouts until you are able to progress to the next step. They set you on a path for success. If you come in overweight you can be put with a nutrition coach to help you lose the weight safely. The fitness and nutrition plans CAL gives its members are ones that the veteran can do safely and effectively. The biggest thing is you need to be open to the process. People often pursue fitness but when the results they are seeking are not automatic they become frustrated and give up. You need to embrace the daily grind of the process and stay consistent. The small steps you take on a daily basis will eventually turn into bigger and bigger steps. Every time you make that conscious decision to workout when you are in pain and you don't feel like it. That’s a win. Every time you finish that extra set when you thought you had no more to give, that is a win. Every time you make the decision to meal prep instead of eating fast food, that is a win. This consistency along with pushing past your personal comfort zone over time is what breeds success.
What have you done outside of Catch A Lift now and what are you doing moving forward with your group?
MSL: The greatest part of my life will always be my family. My husband David and my beautiful daughter Anna Katherine. Being a mother is such a blessing and something I will never take for granted. Watching my daughter grow and learn is a priceless gift. I’ve been blessed in my life with many great people who have crossed my path and helped me get to where I am today. I continue to look for ways to give back to the communities that have helped me so much during my ongoing recovery. One of the ways I’d like to help more is through mentoring other veterans in fly fishing and fitness.
Catch A Lift and I have launched the “Catch A Lift Fund Women’s Fitness Initiative.” The Women’s Fitness Initiative’s three main objectives are to help our women find their fit, to regain the tribe we lost after service, and to grow mentally and physically as a group. Everyone has a different transition from the military to fitness along with their injuries. Plus, everyone's needs and wants are different as well. There is so much to be learned from each other. We are trying to rebuild this tribe of women with empowerment and support. We want to help all of our women get into fitness programs that are sustainable and something they can enjoy. It is interaction at the individual level so that no one is left behind. We have a private Facebook group for our female members. We encourage them to share the triumphs and and struggles of their fitness journey. We post resources, nutrition, and fitness tips, along with motivation. I am working on being more open and honest about my journey and what it has taken for me to get from the couch to the gym. It’s hard for me as I am a very private person and it brings out my vulnerabilities. My hope though is that by sharing my story and my fitness journey I can help another veteran not feel so alone. I want all of our veterans but especially our women to know they are powerful, they are strong, and they can do whatever it is they want if they put their mind to it and do the work.
Can you talk about fitness and how it’s helped you?
MSL: One of the biggest things is how my strength training specifically strongman has pushed me to adopt structure and accountability back into my everyday life. When I wake up in the morning I already know what foods I am going to eat that day and the amounts, I know the body parts I’ll work in my gym and I will have specific goals to accomplish within the training session. I have found the more structured and disciplined I am in the little details of my training the more it translates into the rest of my day. Fitness for me isn't just the time I put in the gym. It's every detail of my day. Everything I do in the day, I do with the intention of bettering my training. I think it brings the soldier back out of me. I've got a mission again, I’ve got a purpose when I wake up. I’m going to put everything I have physically and mentally into that days training. I’m actively taking care of my mental and physical health when I train. I am a better wife and mother because of the mental and physical release I allow myself to have in the gym.
The other thing fitness has really helped with is my overall self worth. I appreciate my body so much more now. Every time I hit a new max lift I sit back and reflect on how much work I had to put into that new strength gain. It's the physical reminder of how strong I am. When my mind is trying to destroy me I have a way to fight back now. I go and lift weights when I’m feeling that way.
Can you speak specifically about Lynn Coffland and what she means to you?
MSL: Lynn Coffland is the living example of what it means to take pain and turn it into purpose. Lynn founded Catch a Lift Fund after her brother Corporal Chris Coffland was killed while on a mission in Afghanistan on November 13th, 2009. CAL’s mission is based off of Chris Coffland’s lifetime belief that through fitness, one can reach their highest potential. It’s hard for me to put into measurable words what Lynn truly means to me. Lynn has been a true, constant friend to me and I certainly count her as a member of my family. She’s been a person I have been able to be very open and honest with about my story and my struggles. I appreciate very deeply the fact that she has never asked me to censor myself or my story for the comfort of others. Knowing I always have her full support has made it so much easier for me to speak on CALs behalf and be open with our CAL veterans and civilian supporters about my journey.
Lynn is literally the person who pulled me out of my basement. I always assumed I would never leave my basement gym as far as my fitness was concerned. I certainly didn't have the confidence to compete in front of other people nor did I think this was something I was deserving of. It was because of Lynn's unflinching belief that I was strong, powerful, and deserving of things to enrich my life that I set the goal in February of 2018 to compete in Strongman. The first picture I ever sent Lynn was a picture of me dead lifting 135 pounds in my basement. In the picture I was using the bumper plates and bar Catch a Lift had gotten me with my grant. 13 months later I was honored to dead lift 285 pounds in my first Strongman competition with Lynn cheering louder than anyone in the crowd. I have always believed God puts people in our lives for a reason. I know without a doubt God put Lynn Coffland into my life to wake me up to live.
What are your goals going into the future and how does Catch A Lift Fund figure into that?
MSL: I have many individual lifting goals or milestones I am working towards, but ultimately my main goal is to find my true strength. I am going to push my strength to the limit and continue to compete in strongman. By competing at a high level and sharing my story I am able to bring attention and awareness to the important work the Catch a Lift Fund provides for its combat wounded veterans. As a woman and mother in a strength sport like strongman I am able to model to my young daughter and other female veterans that mentally and physically if you work hard and stay consistent there is no limit to what you can accomplish.
What’s been the toughest thing about reaching your goals in weight lifting?
MSL: The toughest thing about reaching my lifting goals has been not getting too caught up in my own head. I still struggle daily with my mental health and managing chronic pain. I derail easily so I’m actively working on not letting a night filled with nightmares and fear dictate how my next day will go. I'm trying to learn to stay present and not let any challenges that arise during my day lead to a downward spiral. Depression is a seemingly never ending battle. I constantly battle feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. I've experienced so many times in my training if I approach the bar with a hesitation either physically or mentally I'm not going to succeed in that lift. But if I approach the bar with the confidence of the hard work I have put in nothing can stop me from catching my lift.
What was your journey like when you got out of the Army ?
MSL: It was definitely tough. I returned from Iraq in late December 2005. I had been deployed with a National Guard Company so once our de-mobilization was finished we had a 6 week period before we even needed to report back for drill. Again I felt completely lost. I had no idea what to do with myself. I was with the unit I deployed with only one more weekend to turn in some gear. That was the end of my time with the 1158th. In March of 2006 I went on orders for a short period of time and began working full time at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin. It was during this period of time that I felt as if life was unraveling for me very quick. I went from being a HET driver in Iraq to sitting behind a desk at Headquarters. The PTSD symptoms really started to show. At the time I didn’t have a realization of what was happening but there was a change in my behavior. I started having trouble with anxiety attacks. I was on constant alert looking for an enemy I could never see. It was during this time i started having regular nightmares and periods of disturbance throughout the day where I could be sent back into Iraq in my mind by something as simple as a smell, sound, or touch.
I received an honorable discharge in January 2008. This was one of the hardest days of my military career. My Army career did not end how I had wanted it to. My intent was that I would be a soldier for life. The discharge papers came in the mail and were signed by a warrant officer. I certainly didn’t feel like my time as a soldier was over. It really put the nail in the coffin because it made me feel as if I no longer had a purpose or mission. I didn’t have my tribe. I had tried going back to college and become just enraged because of how ungrateful the other students my age were. I couldn't relate to them in any way. David would get phone calls from me on my way to class I would be pulled over because of an anxiety attack causing me to think I was having a heart attack. My heart would be racing so fast, I couldn't breathe, and I would have pain shooting down my left arm. There were so many times when David would have to come and take me out of situations. I would become overwhelmed with emotion and fear. I started thinking constantly “I’m going to die today.” I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit in a class, why I was losing relationships, and why my behavior was becoming more and more erratic. The walls felt as if they were closing in very fast.
How did you feel about your time in Iraq?
MSL: I believe that my unit did the mission we were sent to Iraq to do very successfully. I have a less idealistic view of the war now. The innocence and naivety have all been stripped away from me. I remember being in the lead truck rolling our convoy through an area of Baghdad that we had traveled quite a bit. I remember this day so well because it was the day that women were able to vote there for the first time. When our convoys would come through the people would always be lining up. That day when we drove through the women were lined up holding up their index fingers. They had just voted and they were showing us the ink on their fingers. That day and moment is seared into my memory. I’m glad I was there for that moment. I have that vision of those women being so proud to have just gotten the right to vote. That meant so much to me then and still does now.
What do you see in this country moving forward that you wish you could change?
MSL: I wish I could change all of the anger, negativity, and divide the media / social media shows. It wears on people. When that is all you are exposed to you start to believe that garbage. There are so many people doing so much good in our communities, country, and world. Often times we just don’t see it unless we are looking for the good. I wish more people would put their focus into bettering their families and local communities instead of complaining about the negatives and evil of the world. It really all starts in the home with the family. This is why it is so important to start and end each day with a grateful open heart. It reminds us of all the good in our lives and all we have to be thankful for.
What would you like to see from the veteran community moving into the future?
MSL: I would like to see us reach out more and ask for help when we are struggling, instead of further isolating and continuing into a downward spiral. It's easy for me to say this to others but in all honesty I struggle with asking for help as much as anyone. Knowing how hard it is to reach out for help makes it all the more important that as a community of veterans we continue to check in on one another. If you haven't heard or seen any activity from your battles check in on them. Call, text, email, do whatever you have to do to make that connection and remind that person you are there. Sometimes just knowing that there is someone out there on the other end can make all of the difference in someone's life.
If you could tell a civilian one thing to change the usual perception of most veterans, what would that be?
MSL: When you are talking to a veteran or trying to build a relationship with one, forget everything you think you know about us. Just because you know someone who is a veteran doesn't mean you know the veteran sitting in front of you. Every veteran is a unique individual who has seen the world through the experiences they have lived. Take the time to look the veteran in the eye and listen to their story. Civilians need to understand being a veteran is not a political identity. I did not join the Army because I was a Republican or Democrat. I joined the Army out of love and duty for my country and our flag.
How do we best bridge the gap between veteran and civilian populations?
MSL: In my life I have seen the gap bridged with fitness. When I have participated in CAL Warrior Fit Weekends I have had the opportunity to sweat alongside civilians. You gain respect for one another as you witness that person pushing themselves to their physical limits beside you. It builds camaraderie and it builds lasting relationships. It is my hope as we go forward more and more communities will partner with Catch a Lift to put on Warrior Fit Weekends in their communities. It's time for this country to sweat with a vet.
What are some of the good things you’ve taken away from your Army training? What are some of the bad habits that you’ve had to kick?
MSL: The most important things I have taken away from my Army training has been how to adapt and overcome along with learning the importance of being able to push past physical and mental pain to accomplish a mission. I apply these things to my daily life and training. No excuses, when I have a goal I make it happen. The extreme vigilance that my training taught me doesn't always translate well into a civilian setting. My mind always wants to revert back to that extreme vigilance especially when I am in a vehicle or if I'm in a group of people. I also picked up swearing early in the Army and it has stuck with me hard. I have to watch myself around my daughter and civilians. It's never my intention to show disrespect towards anyone.
How can this generation’s war fighter learn from the past?
MSL: I believe the best way to learn and understand will always be by hearing first hand accounts from those who lived it. This is why it is so important to listen and learn from the stories of all generations.
There’s not much one can add after a testimony like Melissa’s. Her brutal honesty was a look into the truths of life even more than military service. The individuality, unfortunately, goes both ways. There are some absolutely superb warriors and some of those that abuse the positions they are put in, to the highest possible degree. However, Melissa’s triumphs are the greater story in all of this narrative. To ascend from the mentally damaging depths and succeed in a new arena is a mind-blowing testament of passionate ferocity in will power. And the other part of this narrative is that every one needs a helping hand, even the most courageous of war-fighters. Melissa has continued to rise to the challenge, even while still plagued by those persistent demons brought on by her time overseas. We’d like to thank Melissa and her family for being such welcoming hosts, allowing us into their lives in order that her story is properly shared.
We’d also like to thank Catch A Lift Fund once again for being an incredible sponsor. To find out more about Catch A Lift Fund and their mission in assisting veterans through fitness therapy, check out www.catchaliftfund.com. CAL has been a sponsor for three veteran’s projects now and we’re very appreciative of their fervor in ensuring their vet’s legacies are properly captured. You can also find them on Instagram: @catchaliftfund and Facebook: Catch A Lift Fund.
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