At the end of March 2012 I was in an airport flying home to visit my family when I received a message with three words that shook my world. “Wilson was killed”. My heart fell through my chest. As if this wasn’t hard enough, I had to respond, “Which one?” There was a William Wilson, and a Bryan Wilson. Bryan and I were team leaders together, sharing in the same misery right up until I was wounded and removed from theatre. William was in another platoon. A man I had only met maybe a dozen times. Just before I lost service I got a final message,“ William”. My heart soared, my bunkmate and battle buddy was alive! With crashing realization, I was glad another man was dead. I thought back on every time I had met the man, how he exuded confidence and charisma. The way his soldiers and leaders spoke to him. It was as if I didn’t know the man, instead, I saw the impact he had. I would learn that he left behind a fiancé and incredible family in upstate New York. I would have a memorial bracelet made with his specifics, and like everyone who knew him, never take it off. I would never forget the sacrifice he made.
Towards the middle of 2012 my recovery began to stall, as both of my legs were still attached, but very broken. I was very upbeat about my recovery and happily married, with dreams of returning to the army and one day, overseas. Time would tell a very different story though. As I would be rolled into each of my 22 surgeries, I would make the doctors tape the bracelet so that it would not fall off while I was under. Every night I would curl into a ball and scream as my broken bones where wrestled into position by the pins drilled into them. Nerves that once allowed me to wiggle my toes were crushed under the swelling and only caused my legs to spasm. I would wrap my hand around my wrist, grateful that I was still here. “Just hold on,” I would whisper to myself. I needed to get back to fighting and leading, so that I could honor his loss.
The pain never got easier, my world only grew darker with each passing day. My wheelchair became a bittersweet friend as walking became ever more difficult. The nights were endured with a combination of a cocktail of painkillers and anti-depressants. Mornings were loathed as they only brought pain and disappointment. I would wheel into the bathroom and glare at the face in the mirror. The face that once belonged to a warrior, now covered in stubble with a chin hidden beneath mounds of flesh. The eyes that once scanned rooftops and corners, now sat lifeless and with a methadone glaze. “Why? Why did I get to live? Why did they have to save me? Why is it, a worthless piece of shit like me got to survive so I could become a drain and embarrassment, when great men like him died! Why couldn’t I have just died there, and be remembered for what I was.”
I will never forget the image in my head. My apartment was bare, my ex-wife leaving me with nothing but a borrowed sofa. My week old stumped propped up on a pillow, bleeding through the bandages. My uniform neatly folded on the floor, never to be put on again. Resting on top of it, was Wilsons bracelet, and my 9mm Sig 226. I had no more painkillers to numb the pain, no reason to get up in the morning, no one to ever tell me they loved me or cared. I reached out with my tired hand, and picked up the aluminum bracelet and shoved it back onto my wrist. I thought of his family, his soon to be wife, how they would give anything to hold him one more time, to tell him they loved him. I thought of looking them in the eyes and telling them their son wasn’t coming home, but I did, and I gave up anyway. I wrapped the metal around my wrist and squeezed it, feeling it bite. I couldn’t give up!
I became a man who lived purely out of habit. I smiled, I joked, and I laughed because that’s what I had always done. But I was just getting by. I was achieving incredible feats by simply telling myself “don’t give up”. I would travel the country speaking and sharing my stories in hopes of teaching others to not give up. It wasn’t until I was speaking in front of hundreds of people, all their eyes fixed on me, hanging on my every word when I realized what I was sharing…”don’t give up?”. Is that all I have to offer? To be just good enough? I knew I wasn’t done growing, but how?
The path that I chose, took me back to the very place I came from and required only that I let go of everything I was and everything that made me proud.
In October 2015 I moved to my home state of Utah and set my heart on becoming a Paralympic snowboarder; the catch, I never snowboarded with legs. I had never owned a snowboard, much less set one up! I wasn’t going to let that stop me from become a beacon of hope for veterans in that dark place. I couldn’t take anymore phone calls from old battle buddies letting me know we had lost another one. I was going to be an example that if you put your heart and soul into something, and let go of everything you were, you could become anything you dreamed. I had no idea how painful that journey would become. Every day I would limp off the mountain dragging my snowboard. I would discover a whole new world, and with it, a whole new family. A family of Paralympic athletes who were both broken and beautiful, just like me. Every one of them, at some point in their life, watched their world come crashing down.
Standing in the starting gate at American Nationals Championship in Copper Colorado, I stared down at an eight foot drop and felt my heart racing in my chest. It was my last competition of the season. My body was exhausted, my nubs screamed at me, begging me to take it easy. I heard the clack as the gate dropped open, silencing the voices of protest in my head. I kept my head up and ripped out of the gates, I landed upright and in the lead! As I focused my gaze on the series of berms ahead, I was so focused on winning I failed to notice a small jump at the end of a roller and suddenly my board was no long beneath me. I don’t remember the impact, I just remember picking my face off the snow. My nose cut and bleeding, head ringing from impact. I had hit so hard I could smell and taste copper, my mind was sent flying down a dark rabbit hole. I could smell dust and diesel. A distant scream grew louder in my ears. My body armor was keeping my lungs from filling. “Get your men to safety Matt.” All at once I was back on the mountain, I was cold, my nubs were sore. I looked behind me and could see the starting line, “Get your ass going” my coaches screamed! I looked down the mountain and saw my fellow racers just clearing the next feature. I jumped up and flew down the mountain after them; Letting the speed and intensity of the course wash the memories away. In the end, lost by seconds, nothing but pride swelled in my chest for my fellow riders and myself for how far I had come in a season.
Back in the equipment room, joking and laughing with the other athletes. I shoved my leg into my bag and with horror realized my left wrist was naked. A clear, pale band where Wilson had sat for years. At home, I jumped on the internet and was filling out the form to have a new one made. I couldn’t let Wilson be forgotten! I had to wear it and remember him! I was living for Wilson! I stopped shy of the “order” button and thought back on all the moments I found strength in the memory of him. How honoring him, pulled me through my darkest hours. Now it was time for me to start honoring myself and all those who had worked tirelessly to support me and put me back together. I was no longer Sgt. Matthew Melancon, I am Matthew Melancon, Paralympic hopeful.
I thought of the beautiful view on top of the majestic mountains of Colorado. The monument I carried with me for all those years, will forever be a part of it.
It was time for me to stop living for the dead. To become everything I could be, to let go. Time for me to start living for the living.