FOX CROSSING, Wis. - Alex Melchert was only about six weeks into his freshman year at the College of Wooster in Ohio. He and a friend were driving back to campus after visiting Columbus about an hour and a half away. They pulled off at a rest stop. Melchert washed his face. As he grabbed a towel out of the backseat of the car, a stranger opened fire and forever altered the young man's life.
911 call: "Oh my God. Somebody is shot. Yep, somebody needs help."
"I heard the shots ringing. I remember the smell of gun powder," Melchert recalls.
911 call: "Some gentleman just shot about six shots into a car, and I think they need some help."
Melchert fell to the ground in excruciating pain from the bullets that pierced his body.
"They're searing hot, so they sort of like melt inside of you."
He was bleeding profusely, but he never lost consciousness.
"I never considered death as an option."
As an ambulance raced to the scene along Interstate 71, the 25-year-old suspect, who witnesses say opened fire from a park bench, lead police on a high speed chase before turning the gun on himself. Investigators believe he had untreated mental health issues.
"He's dead. I don't know what forgiving him would do, but I'm not happy that he's dead."
Melchert's big brother John, who is a college student in Florida, rushed to the hospital. He was overcome with anger, fear, and had questions swirling in his head.
"Why couldn't I take this away from him? Why couldn't I lift it off his shoulders? You know, why can't I be the one in the bed instead of him? But it was just the way it was," John explained with tears in his eyes.
Melchert underwent four surgeries for injuries to his arm, liver, pancreas and spleen. One of his ribs blocked a bullet from penetrating his heart, but it's still lodged in his back.
"It moves about 6 inches when I raise my arm. It's alright. I can feel it. It's a reminder."
After four weeks in the hospital, Melchert returned to his Fox Crossing home to continue his recovery from the shooting.
"I'm trying to find ways to not think about it, but basically there's not an hour that passes that I can't be reminded of it."
Playing piano helps with the nerve damage and numbness in his hand. He's also building strength by working out in the gym with his brother and going to therapy.
Melchert says weaning off powerful opiate pain medication is one of the hardest things he's ever had to do.
"It's incredibly scary to see all those people dying in the news, because I understand that I could've been one of them," he explains. "If I didn't have my parents, the parents that I have, I'd be in a dark place."
The support from the community also inspired Melchert to keep pushing forward. The teen received hundreds of get well cards.
"It made me focus on my recovery. It helped in more ways than anyone could've imagined I think."
Neenah High School, his alma mater, held a blood drive in his name.
"I used up about six gallons of blood. I'm very glad that the blood was there for me, so I have to make sure other people have the blood there for them."
Melchert's progress is so remarkable that he's now preparing to go back to college in August, which will be less than one year after he was shot. But before he returns, he's taking a cross country road trip with his friends and brother.
"We're probably not going to make any rest stops, but other than that, I'm pretty excited," he chuckled.
He's going to use that sense of humor and perseverance to make a difficult climb to the top of a mountain.
"It's just going to be one of the best moments of my life. We did it," said John with tears in his eyes.
The climb serves as a symbol of this tenacious teen's determination to begin a new normal.
"I want to help out other people. I want to forward the Earth. You know, leave it better for the next person," Melchert said.
He would eventually like to push for tougher gun laws.