At a 2021 competition for athletes with physical disabilities, Marine Corps veteran Annika Hutsler met a 10-year-old girl who, like her, had a leg amputation below the knee.

The girl’s mother asked Hutsler what she did for a living. Hutsler ― whose ad for fitness brand Athleta had just come out ― had recently left the Marine Corps and had started modeling.

“This little girl’s eyes lit up,” Hutsler said. “She’s like, ‘Mom! That’s the girl from the magazine.’”

“It hit me at that moment: This little girl is 10 years old, from a middle-of-nowhere Texas town. She’s the only girl in her whole school who looks like her — probably the only girl in her whole town who looks like her. And now she’s opening up a mainstream magazine that they just happen to get, and they see somebody who looks like her.”

The Los Angeles-based Hutsler has acted in commercials, appeared in print ads for Target and walked the runway for Tommy Hilfiger — work she said she enjoys because it allows her to serve as a role model for others with disabilities.

She appeared as Miss November in the 2023 fundraiser calendar for Pin-Ups For Vets, a nonprofit geared toward helping injured and ill veterans. The calendar features 13 female veterans with 101 combined years of military service, according to the organization’s founder, Gina Elise.

Pin-Ups For Vets finds its calendar models through a casting notice on social media, Elise said. Two amputees, both Marine veterans, have been featured in a Pin-Ups For Vets calendar.

Hutsler is now an athlete who competes in high-level adaptive sports and has modeled for popular brands. But when she enlisted in the Corps in 2017, her plan was more straightforward: earn a commission through the enlisted commissioning program and serve 20 years before retiring.

She had started considering the military in her senior year at Northern Arizona University on the advice of a friend. She had spoken to recruiters from each branch, but the Marine Corps stood out.

Hutsler enlisted three days after receiving her bachelor’s degree. At boot camp, she worked hard at her training, she said, and even became a squad leader.

But about halfway through recruit training, she noticed a pain in her right foot. Her drill instructor told her she was probably overreacting and that her body eventually would adjust to the stresses of boot camp.

“I kept that mindset,” Hutsler recalled. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just being weak. It’s going to get better, and I’m going to get stronger, and it’s going to be fine.’ And then it never did.”

Navy medical at Twentynine Palms, California — where Hutsler began training to become an electronics maintenance technician — at first diagnosed her with a stress fracture. About nine months later, however, she found out that she had a tumor growing in her foot. And it was growing fast.

In July 2018, she was sent to the West Coast’s Wounded Warrior Battalion.

After months of medical procedures — including multiple invasive surgeries — Hutsler asked her doctor how long she had before she would have to amputate her leg. The doctor gave her five to 15 years.

Cut it off now, Hutsler told the doctor.

“I had just turned 22 at the time,” she recalled. “I was like, I’m not going to waste my 20s knowing that I’m going to get my leg cut off. I’d rather be able to live a successful life with amputation than wait around for an amputation to happen.”

Before getting her right leg amputated below the knee, Hutsler reached out to other amputees on social media for guidance.

Comforted by their support, and fed up with the endless pain and surgeries of the past few years, she found hope in her upcoming amputation.

‘Life doesn’t go as planned’

Hutsler got the amputation in April 2019 and quickly returned to physical activity.

By that June, she was competing in the Paralympic-style Department of Defense Warrior Games — and bringing home silver medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter wheelchair races.

With support from a Wounded Warrior Battalion program, she explored less mainstream sports, like archery and wheelchair rugby.

Since her amputation, Hutsler has competed in snowboarding, track, field, shooting, swimming, archery, wheelchair rugby and seated volleyball. She also does other sports, like rock climbing, wake surfing, ocean surfing, yoga and golf.

After medically retiring as a lance corporal in January 2020, Hutsler has continued to compete in events geared toward disabled troops and veterans. At the Warrior Games in Orlando, Florida, in August, she picked up 10 medals in six sports.

“To me, medals aren’t the end goal,” she said. “The real thing is seeing how far I’ve come and seeing that, ‘Hey, just a couple years ago, I was sitting in my barracks room in so much pain on so much medication, and now I’m out here doing all these events with one leg.’”

Snowboarding holds special meaning for Hutsler, who fell in love with the sport while in college and whose No. 1 goal after her amputation was to go again.

Using a snowboarding-specific prosthetic, she was up on a board eight months after her amputation. Now, she hopes to qualify for the 2026 Paralympics in the sport.

In addition to her athletic training, modeling and many doctors’ appointments — between two and 10 a week — Hutsler said she hopes to do more public speaking in the next few years.

One key message she likes to share with people, she said, is the importance of adapting when life doesn’t go according to plan.

“If everything went my way, I would probably be a captain in the Marine Corps right now and on my way to 20 years, but, obviously, that didn’t happen,” she said.

“It’s OK that life doesn’t go as planned. You can make a life that’s so great, even after tragedy, even after illness. There’s still life to be lived, even when you think that your plans all went wrong.”

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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