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Army 1Lt. Melissa Stockwell Who Lost Her Leg in Roadside Baghdad Bomb Says Paralympic Games 'Makes Me Feel Whole Again'

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Matthew Stockman/Getty

Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient Melissa Stockwell is hoping to take triathlon gold at the Paralympics on Sunday – and she’s fiercely determined to medal for her country.

Stockwell, a 36-year-old mother of one, was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army when she lost her leg in a Baghdad roadside bomb in 2004. The active and dedicated military member’s life was changed forever, in an instant.

“You always think somebody else is going to get severely injured – that it could never be you,” Stockwell, the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War, tells PEOPLE. “I remember being on the ground with a medic over me… When he pulled out a tourniquet, that’s when I knew it was bad. I was rushed off for an emergency surgery and when I woke up I was told my leg was gone.”

She adds, “I’m just glad it was me and not another one of my soldiers. I knew I was going to be able to get through it. I’m strong.”

The two-time Paralympic competitor (who has yet to medal in the games) says she used her years of rehab and struggle to motivate herself prepping for the games.

“Being in the water and competing makes me feel whole again,” explains Stockwell. “And losing a limb wasn’t going to stop me from wanting to prove myself in life. It wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”

Stockwell swam in the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle at 2008 Beijing Paralympics, but fell in love with the sport of paratriathlon soon after. She’s been training and competing in the sport ever since.

“I honestly just can’t wait to wear my USA uniform, compete on the world’s biggest athletic stage and represent the country I was defending over in Iraq,” she says. “When I race, I race to honor myself, my country, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and my family.”

The athlete has one son – 21-month-old Dallas – with husband Brian, who she says makes her “light up!”

“Of course, it’s tough to balance being a mother and training for the Paralympics! I swim, bike and run every day for three hours and spend an hour or two in recovery while constantly snacking throughout the day,” says Stockwell – her favorite snack Jif Peanut Butter. “It takes a village, but I have to see where I can go, how hard I can push myself.”

Last night I had to say goodbye to Dallas for 16 days as I start my travels to Rio and it was not an easy task. As I laid him in his crib I stood there wishing I could just tuck him into my pocket and bring him with me. I left his room and was overcome with the thought of the men and women who serve our country and have to be gone from their loved ones for up to a year at a time, sometimes more. As a parent, just the thought of being away that long is heartbreaking, and although still difficult, it put my 2 weeks in perspective. So today, hug your loved ones and be thankful that you get to see them everyday. And to those who serve, thank you. You and your families sacrifice so much. And to my sweet boy #dallaspatrick, momma will be home soon. 🇺🇸

A post shared by Melissa Stockwell (@mstockwell01) on

Stockwell will take on the world’s best paratriathletes in Sunday’s competition – but she’s confident in her abilities.

“I’ve always been very glass half-full,” she says. “I’ve always dreamed about going to the Olympics. And look at me now.”

“I’ve made it.”