It was June 2012 when the CH-53D helicopter that Marine door gunner and airframes mechanic Sgt. Kirstie Ennis was flying in went down in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
The 21-year-old was on her second Afghanistan deployment. She suffered severe trauma, especially to her brain, spine, neck, shoulder, face and left leg, which after some 40 surgeries was amputated below the knee three years later. A month after that, it was amputated above the knee.
“The first thing I thought about wasn’t ‘Am I going to be able to run again?’ It was, ‘Can I wear a dress?’” Ennis told Military Times. “Am I going to be able to wear heels? Are people going to look at me differently? Am I still going to be attractive?”
“It was really the self-esteem stuff that got to me.”
It wasn’t until a calendar photo shoot in 2018, six years after that accident, that she put on high heels again for the first time, a tear-filled event she describes as highly emotional and special.
“When I was 21 and first got hurt over in Afghanistan, I didn’t have that role model, that injured woman role model in my life,” Ennis said. “I was hoping that other injured women veterans or other amputees or whoever would see it would still want to embrace what it means to be feminine.”
The shoot was for the 13th Pin-Ups For Vets calendar. Ennis was the first amputee to pose for the publication, which was founded in 2006 by Gina Elise as a way to honor her grandfather’s World War II service.
Proceeds of the calendar go to veterans’ hospitals, which includes some of the facilities at which Ennis has been (and is being) treated, she said.
“It’s really about paying it forward and hoping to be a role model for somebody else.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes struggle with self-confidence, despite nearly 87,000 Instagram followers and after becoming the first veteran to grace not only the pages but the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s revealing “Body Issue,” wearing nothing more than a prosthetic leg and rock-climbing shoes.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Ennis is what she calls “one of the lucky ones” — in other words, she’s the daughter of two Marines.
One of her earliest memories involves going to her mother’s boot camp graduation.
“My Barbie dolls didn’t wear ballgowns, they wore dress blues,” she said.
Ennis graduated high school early, got a community college degree and joined the Marine Corps at age 17. She says she joined to serve people and “protect those who can’t protect themselves.”
Twenty years was the goal. After her accident, she had to find a way to continue service.
Though she hasn’t always been an athlete, she’s always been fiercely competitive. Ennis turned to extreme sports to raise money for vulnerable individuals, and to inspire others to live up to their potential.
“I like to think that this is my way of still taking care of people,” she said.
It was in her hospital bed in San Diego that she first considered a snowboarding career. Originally from Florida, she didn’t know anything about snow or the mountains. But snowboarding and now mountaineering are sports that remind of all she can do, she said.
“It’s one of those sports that no one is going to do it for you; it’s on you.” she said. “I need that reminder of my independence and how hard I fought to stay out of a wheelchair.”
Ennis had never snowboarded before her accident. She competed for three years, earning a USA Snowboard and Freeski Association national title.
Her goals aren’t limited to adaptive sports — “I want to compete in the X Games” — and she’s partnering with Burton Snowboards to create a program to take adaptive athletes on skiing and snowboarding trips into the backcountry.
TOP OF THE WORLD
She’s taking her passion for mountaineering to new heights, climbing the “Seven Summits” — the highest peak on each continent.
In 2016 she climbed the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia. Then, in 2017, she became the first female above-the-knee amputee to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, where she left the dog tags of Lance Cpl. Matthew Rodriguez, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013.
This year, she was in Alaska the whole month of June, attempting to climb Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). Her team was pinned at 14,000 feet for 17 days, Ennis said, and “ran out of food and supplies and were basically waiting for other teams to turn around.”
Her team eventually would turn around at 18,200 feet.
“I’m choosing to look at it as I’m one of the lucky ones that gets to go back,” Ennis said.
Each climb teaches her something different, she said. And each raises money for a different nonprofit.
In September she goes to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest point in Europe. In December it’s off to Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson, with a stop on the way home to climb Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. Plans call for tackling Mount Everest in 2019.
And she’s hungry to go back to Denali, the “beast of a mountain” and the one she was the most scared of. Round 2 in Alaska is set for 2020.
It’s not all about the climbs: She’s recently established a nonprofit and sits on several boards, including that of Merging Vets and Players, which pairs combat veterans with pro athletes. And she builds her own prosthetic feet for climbing — a skill she is eager to share when other amputees ask for a customized mountaineering foot.
“There was nothing for it,” she said. “The reality is on my prosthetic side, I don’t have to worry about keeping my foot warm, I don’t have to worry about keeping it dry. There’s no point in me wearing a boot and then trying to throw a crampon [specially designed climbing spikes] on that.”
She just made a climbing foot for retired Army Staff Sgt. Earl Granville, an amputee who made headlines by completing the 2017 Boston Marathon by carrying his guide and an American flag across the finish line. Granville lost part of his leg in Afghanistan in 2008; he’ll use an Ennis-crafted prosthetic to tackle Washington’s Mount Rainier, Ennis said.
She hopes to patent her prosthetics.
“I really want to mass-produce them and just give them to kids,” she said. “There’s not a lot of resources for amputee kids to get out and get on the mountain.”
Not enough? She just earned her third master’s degree and is toying with pursuing a doctorate. And she wants to be the first amputee to swim the English Channel and to snowboard Mount Vinson and Everest.
There are still times she looks in the mirror and says she’s surprised that her left leg isn’t there. But it’s all about having the courage to explore, and the confidence to try anything with, or without, her leg — like wear high heels and pose for a calendar.
“It’s emotional to look at yourself and still see the same person that you were, even though there’s something different,” she said. “People like to see other people embracing their differences. Hopefully this encourages other people to embrace it.”
Learn more about the Pin-Ups For Vets calendar, and buy your copy, at pinupsforvets.com.
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times.