Working to resume her dream Survivor: After a serious car accident interrupted her freshman year at the Air Force Academy, Shannon Merlo is more determined than ever to return to Colorado Springs.

June 05, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The Ford Mustang was slipping, sliding, swerving. Across the snow-covered three lanes of highway. Onto a grassy median. Going more than 60 mph, the red sports car turned end over end. Once, twice, a third time.

With each flip of the car, Shannon Merlo, Westminster High School Class of 1997, was slammed against the seat, the roof and, finally, the rear window. Glass shattered. Merlo was ejected. She blacked out.

When she woke up, she was lying on the grassy median of Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- less than a mile from the Air Force Academy, where that day Merlo had been preparing for finals.

'I didn't know'

"When I woke up, the car was lying on top of me," recalled Merlo, 18, who is recovering from the April 18 accident at home. "At first, I didn't know what was happening. My friends were telling me not to move, but I didn't know why. I felt like I could get up and walk around."

The friends, fellow cadets taking a break with a trip to a local mall, walked away from the accident with minor injuries. But it would take a four-hour operation and nearly five weeks before Merlo could take small steps. Even then, she needed crutches.

Her right leg was shattered, broken in five places. Her left leg suffered third-degree burns when the muffler landed on it. Her left shoulder, pelvis and liver were also injured.

"In that one day, my whole life changed," Merlo said of the accident. "Everything I had worked so hard for, for so long, was gone."

Gone, it seemed, was her dream of graduating from a military academy, a dream she had nurtured for a lifetime.

Tales of service

As a child, she often sat on her father's knee, listening to him talk of his days in the Air Force. Vincent Merlo had served his country for six years. He enlisted in 1975, the year South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, fell, and was stationed in Saudi Arabia and England.

As a teen-ager, his daughter dreamed of a military career of her own, of becoming a diplomat and working overseas like her dad. She dreamed of an assignment in China.

She worked for years to turn those dreams into reality. She studied hard and earned excellent grades at Westminster High, graduating in the top 20 percent of her class. She often took advanced classes -- advanced literature and composition, advanced U.S. history, advanced calculus.

She joined the lacrosse team, became a basketball cheerleader and was president of the Carroll County Student Government Association. As a student leader affiliated with Girls Nation -- a national program that allows teen-age girls to learn firsthand how government works -- Merlo met with President Clinton and Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.

During her senior year, she worked as an intern for 6th District Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett and spent numerous hours training her body for the rigors of military life. She took up jogging and started lifting weights.

Her daily exercise regimen and study habits carried her through basic training. She was named the top cadet in her class -- muscling aside about 1,000 classmates for the honor.

'I got incredibly depressed'

"I loved the academy," Merlo said. "I loved the training. I was used to running around, doing push-ups and sit-ups. Having to lay in bed was horrible. I got incredibly depressed."

Cards, letters, balloons and flowers sent by friends in Westminster and academy cadets from all 50 states helped to lift her spirits. Stuffed animals kept a bedside vigil, keeping her father company on many chilly nights.

Vincent Merlo flew to Colorado Springs the day after his daughter's accident. His wife, Melody, stayed home to mind the family business and care for two sons -- Kevin, 16, and Zachery, 8.

Merlo stayed by his daughter's side day and night, entertaining her with card games and helping her study for finals.

She was determined to finish her freshman year, despite the accident and an uncertain future. She took three of her four finals from her bed in the Acute Care Unit at Penrose St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs.

'Restricted' activities

She got an A in calculus, a B-plus in English and a B in history. Chinese was the only exam she could not make up.

Through it all -- the studying, the physical therapy, the exams -- doctors cautioned Merlo that she might not be able to return to the Air Force Academy with her class.

"They told us that she might have to take it easy for a while, that her activities might have to be restricted because of the extent of her injuries," her father said.

But true to form, Shannon Merlo is proving the doctors wrong. Two weeks ahead of schedule, she is walking without crutches. She's studying Chinese. She's doing sit-ups. And she's lifting weights to keep her upper body strong.

Said Merlo: "I just want to be the same person that I was before the accident. I'm going back to Colorado Springs next month. I'll be there when classes begin Aug. 6."

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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