I had raked through my thoughts on the two-hour drive from Temecula to Santa Monica.  My mind drifted off as my hands gripped the steering wheel and I felt that hot engine blast.  I'm 21 years old again as Bravo Team Leader, 3rd Squad, it’s night time at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) and my infantry unit is headed for Taji, a rural town about twenty-five miles northwest of Baghdad.  “Chalk three, let’s roll!” my squad leader shouts as we take the circular path and walk onto the flight line towards our CH-47 Chinook.  I pull my Oakley Nomex gloves tighter against my palms and grip my M4 confidently as I feel my first adrenaline rush in a combat zone.  The smell of JP8 (fuel) burns my nostrils, but I kind of like it and, let's be honest, it's so much better than the smell of Iraq (my fellow OIF vets know what I'm talking about).   I hear the pounding of the blades as I walk confidently towards the Chinook.  The loadmaster from 1st Cav motions each of us onto the ramp.  This is it.  This is a war zone and I am here.  Inside I’m fist pumping like a madman because truthfully I love this feeling.  I sit back against the frame of that hulking beast that will take me to my first post in Iraq.  The combination of my assault pack and IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) feels like 1000 lbs against my sweat drenched back, but I couldn’t care less.  The cabin goes black and the only light I see through my fogging Oakley's is the faint green coming from the night optics of the loadmaster.  He takes his seat and grabs onto the M-249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon).  I see my buddy Haynes across from me beaming, and he gives me the “thumbs up.”  I can see his mouth moving… “Hell yeah.”  We start to float upward and there we float suspended, flying higher and higher above the buzzing lights of Baghdad.  I pray as I always did that the Lord would keep my hands steady and mind clear, no matter what happened over the next nine months.  We pull an evasive maneuver and I feel my heart wrench as I begin to think “What would it be like to go down?”

I'm back in my car.  My brain pounds as I try to work through my feelings and the immensity of what I’d seen that day.  Journalism is one of those things where you stay on the outside of your feelings.  What I mean by that is you never get too emotionally attached to the subjects of your stories.  This process of detachment gives you a non-biased approach in your coverage.  It’s impossible for me to do with the project because these are my brothers and sisters.  In order for me to remain detached, I would have to ignore what I love most about this journey.  Camaraderie.  It means everything to me.  So when Kirstie Ennis sat there and began the process of pulling off her prosthetic, I saw it very clearly for a minute and I saw a warrior.  I imagined the screams she heard as her helicopter fell rapidly to the earth.  I imagined the panic in the cabin as vertical became horizontal.  I quickly picked up my camera and took the shot.  

Most of all, I saw the amount of sacrifice and wondered if there was any way to quantify that.  A lost limb in service of a nation you deeply love.  I felt that chill run up and down my spine that I’ve become so familiar with.  I am grateful Kirstie.  I will forever be grateful for your sacrifice, and just know that I will never be able to thank you enough.  The world finds many things inspiring but what I find the most inspiring is brothers and sisters that unquestioningly enter the furnaces of combat, and come out forever changed.  

Climbing.  Kirstie was climbing the mountain both literally and figuratively.  She was moving swiftly despite the loss of her leg, below the knee.  She’d lost it in a helicopter crash, as a door gunner for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan.  She wasn’t looking for sympathy, though.  What Marine is?  The fire burned deep within her just as it had for her beloved Corps.  But one day something wasn't right with her leg.  After her fourth visit to the ER the doctors said there was an infection and they were going to have to operate again.  She was going to lose more of her leg and this time maybe at the hip.  She told the doctors not to wake her if they took the hip.  They cut again above the knee this time.  She would once again have to re-learn to walk. 

Climbing.  Kirstie is climbing again this time.  That fire still burns with great fervency within, probably even more so now than ever.  What would’ve sent many people into the fetal position asking “Why me?” sent Kirstie into overdrive.  She’s training now to climb the tallest peak in Oceania, Mount Carstensz in Indonesia (one of the tallest seven summits in the world) something no amputee has ever done (also training to climb Mt. Kiliminjaro after that).  I watched Kirstie as she changed her legs out for each activity (she has three with various attachments for various activities).  Throughout the course of the day and many images that stuck with me, there was one that I’ll always remember.  I see her standing there.  Kirstie is looking up at the gray wall, studying each hand-hold and determining the best way to climb. 

She’s done this before though so many times, both in the literal and figurative sense.  First handhold: She’s climbing to stay alive and see her sister at the hospital.  Second handhold: She’s climbing to make it through the operations.  Third handhold: She’s climbing to get used to the prosthetic and walk again.  Fourth handhold: Kirstie slips as she’s told they’re going to have to take more of her leg.  She regains her composure and pushes forward like the war-fighter she is.  Fifth handhold: Kirstie learns to walk again this time without a knee.  Her eyes narrow as that intense focus sets in and her goal becomes imminent.      

There will always be more mountain to climb, more handholds as life brings its own challenges.  But what I saw in my day with Kirstie Ennis is a master mountaineer, a member of the warrior class of Marines that’s never afraid of any peak.  Read carefully because you won’t want to miss one word of her experiences.  Here’s Marine Corps Sergeant, Kirstie Ennis.   

Can you talk about that moment and what happened in the crash? 

KE: June 23rd, 2012 was a day like many others I’d gone through in the past.  It started out as an extremely simple mission.  A few hours before we were outbound flight plans changed.  We would now be flying to FOB Nawzad to Musa Qala to pick-up some Marines that had gotten bogged down.  It was a bizarre day and nothing that we would’ve done normally really went the normal way.  There were a few things that changed throughout the day like my crew, my aircraft, but we were all so excited to be directly helping the guys on the ground.  That’s what Marine Corps Aviation lives for.  Our job is direct support.  We picked up three space available PACs and they were Army Medics we were going to bring to Nawzad.  All was fine up until we got right outside of Nawzad.   There was just a lot going on at the time. 

The pilot made inputs on the sticks and wasn’t receiving outputs that he desired.  At that moment it kind of became a little bit of a panic because we obviously aren’t going to come off of our guns until they say, “Crash is imminent.”   We are going to do everything we can in our power to help out the pilots in the front, but also to protect our cargo and what we are moving.   Next thing you know we started to go so far nose up that we rolled left and the rest was history.  My tail gunner tried to get out of his belt in hopes of getting into his seat which there weren’t many seats available in the first place because of all the cargo we were moving.  He flew out the back and when we hit the ground... I was kind of ripped apart.  The last thing I remember was the screaming I heard.  I was kind of in-and-out from there.  My leg was mangled and snapped, my right shoulder was destroyed, I could fit my fist through my face and my jaw was completely destroyed.  My teeth were gone, my jaw had to be rebuilt as well as one of my orbital sockets, it blew out my eardrums, I had fractures in my C2, C3, C4 cervical spine and had severe damage to my lumbar.  From that moment on, I was just fighting to stay awake. 

...when we hit the ground... I was kind of ripped apart. The last thing I remember was the screaming I heard. I was kind of in-and-out from there. My leg was mangled and snapped, my right shoulder was destroyed, I could fit my fist through my face and my jaw was completely destroyed. My teeth were gone, my jaw had to be rebuilt as well as one of my orbital sockets, it blew out my eardrums, I had fractures in my C2, C3, C4 cervical spine and had severe damage to my lumbar. From that moment on, I was just fighting to stay awake.
— SGT Kirstie Ennis (USMC)

The guys from 2/5 (2nd Battalion, 5th Marines) who came out from Nawzad to provide security for us helped the casualties, the Army Medics that were onboard started assessing all of us, and began to break down the guns.  They threw me in the lead aircraft and it was strange because they laid me on my back, and they were basically just trying to get me out of there as quickly as possible.  I couldn’t breathe laying on my back, and I couldn’t move because of the damage on my spine.  I couldn’t feel my leg at all at that point, and I was just gurgling blood because everything was pretty much broken in my face.  I couldn’t breathe through my nose and everything was draining out of that massive hole in my face.  I just kept going in and out and I remember the guy that took my spot on the left gun comes over to me and says, “Don’t fucking close your eyes or you won’t open them.”  The whole time I was just thinking to myself, “I’m not going to die without seeing my sister again.  I’m okay with dying after but not until I see my sister.”  They started to cut my flight suit and I always flew with a rosary, and a picture of mom, dad and sister.  I had those since bootcamp and I wouldn’t fly without that picture in my cover.  They tried to take those things off of me and I was like, “Absolutely not.  Those are mine.”  The Sergeant Major I had at the time showed up.  He was just this mean old bastard from the ground-side, who couldn’t stand me when we first met.  I saw him with my Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant) who’d convinced me to deploy again, and he was just wrecked.  He was crying and that’s when I knew something was really wrong with me.  The doctors grabbed my head because they were trying to stabilize me.  I knew that couldn't suffocate on my own blood.  If I was going to die it was going to be for a better reason than that.  I finally just started grabbing for people to turn my head so I could let all the blood drain out.  I spit some of it out in the doctor’s face and I think they got the memo to turn my head (laughs).  That’s everything I remember. 

What was that first deployment like? 

KE:  I had a lot of head trauma so it’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking on the first deployment.  I do remember that it was a reality check.  I have like 3000 pictures in my phone and like 500 of those are baby pictures they used to trigger my memory, so my memories of that first deployment are spotty.  I remember coming down in a C-130 and making those big circles when we land and thinking, “Hell, let’s just land this damn thing.”  There was part of me that was scared and worried.  I was 19 years old and there’s like that, “Damn, what am I doing here?” thing going on.  I was in some very significant situations that made me value life even more so than I already did.  Not because of things that happened to me, but because of what I had to see being on a helicopter and seeing the different people we picked up. 

Obviously, as a woman, I have a different perspective and we deal with a lot of women and children.  I would like to be able to say there are good people over there, but it’s honestly really hard for me to say that.  I found myself in certain situations where I couldn’t help but feel really badly.  I saw a lot of kids over there who were in really bad shape and it was at the hands of evil.  To me, it’s very hard.  There were situations when I had to turn my back on a child because of the bigger picture and helping everyone else.  I carry a lot of guilt from that.  Now they see that both a man and woman turned their back on them.  So now they see that both a mother and father figure turned their back on them.  And I know that this could destroy someone pure of heart and pure of mind. 

Aside from that, I was really proud that I was able to go over there and play my part.  And I’m proud of that because I feel it’s rare nowadays that people want to be a part of the military and to deploy into these situations.  I feel like a lot of people join for some type of motive like college or healthcare.  And that’s fine, but I was over there because I wanted to be a Marine.  I can remember lying on the ground when 9/11 happened.  My mom was all panicked because she was getting recalled into active duty and I remember her coming to get me at school.  My dad was working on a pipeline outside of New York City at the time, and my mom hasn’t heard from him so she’s super panicked.  I just remember watching that attack and wondering, “What can I do to help?  How can I be a part of the bigger picture?”  I was in 5th grade and I wanted to help so badly.  I’ll always remember that.  So, being a Marine was a fulfillment of being part of that bigger picture.     

Talk about your time as a Marine and what it was like serving in the Marine Corps.  

KE: I joined so young.  I mean it absolutely flipped my world upside down.  Everything that I even know now is being a Marine.  When you join at 17 years old it's kind of your identity.  While it was absolutely the best thing I could've done for myself, it was a whirlwind.  You're forced to grow up and it's not because your parents kicked you out or something.  You're forced to grow up because, guess what?  Now at 19 years old you're going to Afghanistan.  At that point, you have to wakeup because it's not like I was sitting behind a wire the whole time.  The missions that I was on carried the very real risk of losing absolutely everything.  Just like with any other Marine, there's a time where you have to grow thick skin and buck up and realize why you joined.  It made me a much better person, and I gained the best friends/family that I could ever have.  I think that's what I'm thankful for the most.  Yes, the experience forces you to grow up and obviously now I have a completely different perspective on life.  But I've now had the greatest friendship with people that I could possibly have.  Nothing will ever compare to those relationships.  I joined the Marine Corps with no brothers but ultimately when I left, I had hundreds of them.  

Can you explain the complications of fighting terrorism? 

KE: Terrorism is absolutely pure evil and it’s a fucking faceless battle.  There’s no way to completely combat that.  No matter how much you want to be the greater good there’s always going to be someone out there that wants to destroy that good.  It crushes me because, quite frankly, if your religion means killing others then kill your fucking self first.   I think that’s where the military really comes in and defends against that.  The only way to have peace in this world where terrorism is a constant, is with war.  You have to put a stop to them somehow, some way.  You can’t make an entire culture want to be better or want to evolve as humans.  They’re so set in their ways and you can’t change them.  Over there right now, you’re not going to change that culture. 

You can go back and talk about Charlie Wilson’s War and how that all kicked off.  We can talk about how history repeats itself over and over again, which it does, but there are so many issues over there.  I mean even with communications it’s so spaced out because it’s a third world country.  You think you’re going to change a village?  You’re not going to change that.  I still have a soft spot for those people and I feel there are a handful of good apples over there.  I feel that some good could somehow come out of that place.  I think there are some exceptions to the rule over there.    

Kirstie with her dog Cooper.  

...The only way to have peace in this world where terrorism is a constant is with war. You have to put a stop to them somehow, some way. You can’t make an entire culture want to be better or want to evolve as humans...
— SGT Kirstie Ennis (USMC)

At what moment do you feel like you made the biggest difference on deployment to Afghanistan?

KE: I honestly feel like every time I stepped out on a mission, I was making a huge difference.  I'm very proud of everything I did in the military and everything I did over in Afghanistan.  The little things even.  I could sit here and talk about when we did a drug raid or when we carried 1/7 Marines from here to there.  I guess all those things are awesome in many ways, but I did it because it was my fucking job.  That's your duty.  You do it because you're told to and there's really nothing glorious about it.  You take care of who you need to take care of and you bring home everyone you fucking can.  That's it.  But I will say, that picking up the guys to take them home was probably my favorite thing about being there.  My dad used to send me cigarettes and dip to give to the guys.  We'd pick these dudes up and getting to know they were going to see their families again was so awesome.  It was also scary to see the guys going outbound and knowing that they may not make it back.  I remember picking up some Australians to take them out and one of the guys handed me a coin purse.  He told me to mail it to the address he'd given me if I didn't pick him back up.  Those were such meaningful exchanges.  Those are the moments you live for.  

How old were you when you joined?  What MOS and what units did you serve with?  

KE: I actually joined when I was 17 years old.  I had graduated from Pensacola Junior College before I graduated highschool.  So I joined two months after my 17th birthday.  I still remember leaving my chemistry lab at the junior college and heading over to the Marine Corps recruiter's office.  I asked him what I had to do.  They told me that I had to have parental consent because I was 17.  So, I went home that same day and I promised my parents I would do a desk job.  My dad was like, "Okay, you can do supply or admin like your mom did."  I was like, "Yeah, yeah, I'll do that."  Sure enough my parents signed the papers.  They were happy about it actually because I was kind of a mischievous, little shit-head.  I'm sure my mom was thinking, "Good riddance (laughs)." She thought it would straighten me out really quickly.  My dad of course was brokenhearted because he wanted me to finish my bachelor's degree.  I ended up doing something completely different from a deskjob of course.  I started out as an Airframe Mechanic and then earned my Aircrew Wings.  The way that I did it I was able to get a taste of absolutely all of it.  So my initial MOS was 6153 so I handled everything from hydraulics, to composites, to structural repair.  My secondary MOS was 6199 which is an Aerial Door Gunner.  I ended up doing two tours to Afghanistan.     

What was it like for you to deploy?

KE: I mean I honestly miss deploying.  I think that's something all of us feel when we get back from overseas, or get out of the military.  It was simple in a lot of ways.  There was no worrying about how I did my hair or what I was going to put on.  You know what you're doing immediately.  You know where you need to be, how you need to get there, and who you need to be looking out for.  You protect your ship, your helicopter, the men around you.  It's very simple.  In some cases, it's kill or be killed and that's it.  You just have to be so conscious of everything around you that you don't have to worry about everything that's going on back at home.  My deployments were also very entertaining.  I loved being over there and knowing I could help those that couldn't protect themselves.  I was helping the boots on the ground.  In a way, it's one of the most rewarding things you can say that you've done.    

What's the hardest part of returning home from a deployment?  

KE: You really just need a time to decompress because you've been gone for so long.  You're leaving everything that you knew behind when you deploy.  The routine that you're used to, the atmosphere you're used to, everything you're used to is all gone.  When you're over there you're constantly on edge, constantly looking out for your crew, watching your six, and all that adds up.  When you get back there's not as much of a need to be that way.  You have to give yourself a transition period to ease back into your daily life.  You're not used to seeing your family members or being around all your friends.  Your whole routine is completely different.  I was used to waking up every morning at 5 a.m. and putting on the uniform, so when that routine was gone I felt kind of lost.  I had to figure out how to go from being high speed, low drag to just the opposite.    

 

If you could tell a civilian one thing about how you'd like to be perceived what would that be? 

KE: I don't feel like I need to be handled in any specific way in regards to my military service.  I don't feel like people need to always tell me, "Thank you for your service."  Actions speak louder than words so I'd rather just feel appreciated.  I'd rather be confident in knowing that my country stands behind me and has my back.  That means a lot more to me.  Someone just verbalizing that to me doesn't mean nearly as much as when someone shows it to me.  It's a nice gesture and it's always appreciated, but there are many other ways to truly show that.  Whether it's of time, or limb, or life it's just nice to know that the sacrifice is appreciated.  In regards to my injury, I'd rather just have people ask me what's going on in my life then look at me like I'm different.  It's pretty obvious I'm not the same, but I just wish people would try to understand me rather then look at me awkwardly.   

Did you feel stigmatized or detached when you got back home? 

KE: I was definitely detached when I got back.  When I left the military that was hard because that's all I knew.  I was thrown back into this environment where I felt like nobody could understand or relate to me.  You don't feel comfortable talking about the things that happened to you or the things you brought home with you.  Your memories that you might have or the anxieties attached to those aren't really shareable with civilians.  You're used to that military routine and you get back and it's all gone.  You have to find ways to fill that time, and you have to figure out how to go from high gear to a lower gear.  You're going from high speed, low drag to the opposite.   

Do you remember a moment where you were touched heavily by a particular person or moment in coming back from the loss of your leg? 

KE: So I'm a junior director of an organization called "Wounded Warrior Outdoors" and we take veterans that are amputees or have mental injuries out to hunt, fish, and do various outdoor things.  I was going out as a mentor on some of these trips and there was one medical assistant that would come on these trips consistently.  Finally one day he sat down across from me and said, "I have something I'd like you to read."  He had this article he'd written for the Wild Sheep Foundation.  Come to find out, it was actually the doctor who'd treated me in Afghanistan.  In this article, he'd talked about telling me I wasn't going to make it.  

Coming out to these different meetings was actually helping him heal emotionally by seeing me making it, and progress the way I was.  Seeing me continually moving in a positive direction was actually just as healing to him as it was for me.  It took him like a year and a half to tell me about him being the one that treated me in Afghanistan.  There's an interesting spider-web in our wounded warrior community and I've been able to see that up close.  Being around some of these double and triple amputees has really motivated me to keep going.  My Marine Corps family has really fed me with the motivation I've needed to keep going.  It's a big massive family that's been interconnected in so many different ways and I really value that.   

Kirstie with Rob (left) and Juan (right), of Warfighter Made.

Can you explain what happened with your leg and why you had to have a second amputation? 

KE:  I was having trouble with my incisions healing and the bones in my leg healing properly.  I went to the emergency room four separate times trying to get doctors to look at my limb, because it wasn't right.  It would just randomly swell really badly.  Long story short, they ended up needing to do an emergency surgery in order to figure out what was going on with the bone.  The bones had basically started to turn to jello and the muscles were deteriorated.  They did that emergency surgery through the knee and two days later I was still sitting in the hospital.  I felt really ill and my blood pressure was continually dropping.  I was on all these different medicines and my blood cell count was off.  Come to find out I'd caught MRSA (MRSA, in layman's terms, is a really nasty version of a staph infection that is resistant towards common antibiotics) and they told me at that point I was going to probably lose my hip.  

I flat out told them, "If you take my hip don't wake me up."  I've never been intimidated by a surgery or worried about doctors, but I remember going into that surgery and I thought it was over.  I knew at the very least I'd be losing my knee, and I can't even adequately express what the knee does.  You take away someone's knee and that's a complete game changer.  It changes the way you walk completely as opposed to a below the knee amputation.  The simplicity in life goes away when you lose the knee.  I'm definitely blessed though that I have as much leg as I do, and they didn't have to take my hip.  It's definitely been a struggle and there have been a lot of complications, but at least I'm still here.   

What about being an athletic is therapeutic for you and how has it helped your recovery?

KE: First and foremost, competing at the level at I'm at right now has provided me an opportunity to serve and represent my country again.  The greatest thing I've ever done with my life is being a Marine.  I don't represent my country in that way anymore in the active duty capacity, but being able to represent my country with Team USA is another way to inspire and motivate people to push past difficult circumstances they might be facing.  I'm now participating in sports that I never did with two legs.  But now being able to step outside of my comfort zone, has given me the confidence that I can do anything I want to do.  It's provided me with the tools and mindset to move forward.  I'm not content with just sitting on the couch and being consumed by my injury.  I refuse to let that wound define me.  I control what's going on in my life.  Sports, recreational therapy, and athletic participation has given me that control back.    

 

Obviously a major topic nowadays is women in combat occupational specialties.  What do you think about women in combat roles?

KE: I had a very interesting role as an aerial door gunner.  Don't get me wrong I had to fight tooth-in-nail to prove everyone wrong, and show that I could fulfill that role; but I believe that's completely different than being boots-on-ground.  There are too many different elements for women to be serving in that infantry role.  There are definitely women that are physically capable of it; but dealing with men all the time firsthand, they saw me and thought of their daughters or wives.  To me, that alone, adds a very interesting and problematic dynamic.  I feel like if I were to get hurt, those guys would drop everything to help me out first.  That's just something innate within a male.  Instinctually, males seek to provide protection for females first.  You can't shut that instinct off.  That's the biggest hurdle to clear in my mind.  Women also have completely different muscle makeups and anatomical structures.  If you could have a platoon of all women, you could have a badass platoon of girls that could fuck shit up.  But, I do not feel that you can integrate male units with women at this point.  The reasons may be primal, but I feel that no matter how hard you try it's almost impossible for women to fit in with their male counterparts in those roles.  I feel like integrating women into these roles would just mess up the dynamic or synchronization in an all male unit.  

Veterans taking their own lives is a major issue, obviously.  What do we do to change the dynamic and how do we bring the numbers down?

KE: One of the reasons I got my Master's in Psychology was seeing the lack of mental health help.  I went through a year of mental therapy as an inpatient, and I sat across from this doctor every appointment.  I remember talking to him and just saying, "I'm not talking to you.  You read about this shit in a book.  You don't know what it's like.  You don't know how to treat this because you've never had to go through anything like this."  I was extremely pissed off.  On my first "Alive Day" I just felt angry and went off the deep end in a bad way.  I woke up in the hospital and told my grandma goodbye.  I was just done.  I didn't want to be alive.  They ended up sending me to a different psychologist and I started going to this combat therapy group; that was led by this sweet Vietnam veteran named Jack Lion.  

For a long time, I didn't talk in these groups because I just wanted to see where I fit in.  That group ended up being a big help for me.  I listened to these other guys talking about their issues and that really was good for me.  Just because we aren't on active duty anymore doesn't mean we don't help.  We still owe it to our brothers and sisters to pick up the phone every once in awhile.  Call someone and reach out.  That helps.  I think one of the most interesting things going on right now is this "buddy check" thing.  I actually think that will end up being one of the most effective things, as far as actually helping the problem.  We need to hold each other accountable.  When you go back to your town and lose the brotherhood, you start to feel empty.  We need to stay up with each other and help each other out.  Don't give up on each other.  My buddy killed himself about a year ago, and I'd seen him two weeks before that.  There had been people that had seen him the day before, and they all said you wouldn't have known anything was wrong.  But, were we asking the questions we needed to ask?  Were we making sure that he was alright?  I don't know.  

Call someone and reach out. That helps. I think one of the most interesting things going on right now is this ‘buddy check’ thing. I actually think that will end up being one of the most effective things, as far as actually helping the problem of veteran suicide. We need to hold each other accountable. When you go back to your town and lose the brotherhood, you start to feel empty. We need to stay up with each other and help each other out. Don’t give up on each other.
— SGT Kirstie Ennis (USMC)

How do you see our country in the overall cultural climate and what would you do to fix things?

KE: We need to find our spine again.  Everyone's so afraid of offending everyone else that we've really forgotten who we are.  We've been tiptoeing around every little thing.  I'm so proud of my country, but I think we've fallen off a lot.  I know that we can go back to being a world power though, and the symbol of strength we need to be.  I'm definitely concerned though.  I feel like we've lost a lot of value and morality in sticking up for what's right.  We've been trying to take care of so many other countries and being wrapped up in the rest of the world, that we've completely lost focus with what we need to do for ourselves.  As of lately, we've had some presidents that had the power to unify this country; especially in this last year, we've been terribly divided in so many different ways.  This last year has been a wreck.  That devastates me as someone that was willing to lay my life down for this country.      

Why'd you decide to go the Marine Corps route? 

KE: I wanted to be challenged and I didn't want to just be better.  I wanted to be the best.  My parents had a major influence on that decision.  I was the kid with the barbies wearing dress blues (laughs).  The proudest moments of my life as a little girl were putting on my red sweatshirt that said, "My mommy is a U.S. Marine."  So that played a major role in it.  I've never been the person to nibble on mediocrity when I could choke on greatness.  You will never be able to tell me anything that makes me think the Marine Corps isn't the greatest.  I'm proud of that.  

How did you time in service help you with your various disciplines in life and also your time as an athlete?

KE: There are things you learn in the military that you just can't learn anywhere else.  In bootcamp I remember being broken down until I didn't even know who I was anymore.  They were shaping me into the best version of myself.  The biggest thing I think I've gained from that service has been the grit and determination.  There's really nowhere else you can get that besides the military.  That's always stuck with me, and I'll never lose that.

Who are the people that lift Kirstie Ennis up on her bad days?

KE: Without a doubt, my mom, dad, and my sister have been my lifeline through all of this.  I can not emphasize enough the significance and importance of caregivers.  Whether it's a wife, parent, spouse, or sibling they are so important.  Those people have been my right hand.  My sister gave up so much for me.  When I first got hurt she quit highschool and started online schooling.  She made that decision so she could be with me in California while I was in rehab.  Now she's 19 and a junior in college doing phenomenally well.  Those are decisions that family and loved ones have to make.  Come to find out later that my family was pretty distraught because they couldn't stay with me.  I don't come from money so financially they couldn't afford to stay with me.  Everyone was just really broken down by that, so she decided to be the one to stay behind with me.  I remember my dad saying to me, "You're going to be the one to fucking kill yourself.  The war couldn't kill you.  You killed you."  That's the tough love a lot of us need I feel like.  No more pity party and no more getting babied.  He just sat me down and told me to pull my head out of my ass.  He held my feet to the fire and I needed that.  Same thing with my mom.  She sacrificed so much in being there for me constantly.  My family has been my rock and my source of strength.        

Kirstie writes back to a young fan, an elementary student who is also an amputee.  

What are your goals now as far as athletics go and for life as well?

KE: I just want to always do the best I can, and help as many people as I can along the way.  My personal goals are many but my greatest right now is to compete in the Paralympic Games in 2018 in South Korea.  I want to podium so badly.  I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to that.  It's probably unhealthy in how badly I want to win.  I also want to be the first amputee to summit Mount Carstensz in Indonesia.  My life has revolved around that lately.  I just want to leave this crazy, sometimes evil world we live in a little bit better.  I'm not guaranteed to be here tomorrow and I don't care about making millions of dollars.  I just want to help people in any way that I can.  If I can put a smile on one person's face throughout my day, I feel like I've accomplished what I need to.  That might sound cheesy but that's how I really feel.   

Kirstie stands with her trainer, Ryan Idziak at "Self Made Training Facility" in Murrieta, CA.  

Spiderwebs.  Throughout the duration of my Master's Degree we learned a lot in emerging media about the networks that connect us all together.  Lines of communication meet up and interconnect with nodes.  These nodes are points of communication and, in my network, these nodes are the lifeblood of our freedom.  Each story brings me, at certain points in time, to each person who's had such an incredibly substantial effect on our nation.  

I sip my coffee and look up through the cafe's window where I'm working on my next POC (point of contact) for the project.  I'm already working on the next story.  I shut my laptop and stop myself.  Sometimes I'm in such a rush to get to each veteran that I forget to truly respect what I've just experienced.  Sergeant Kirstie Ennis brought me back to the point of truly treasuring each and every node.  If you've been a part of the project, thank you.  Thank you for your sacrifices as you signed on that line, unsure of what those next years of your life would entail.  In some of those pens was not just ink, but blood, bone, and muscle that you would give up so you could come back to a nation that isn't always so grateful.  Just know that with every story I write, I do it for all of you with great fervency and passion because I recognize your sacrifice.  I hold it close to my heart.  Kirstie Ennis is a savage warrior who has clearly earned the title of Marine.  She might be lacking in limb, but her heart beats stronger than ever.  I have no doubts that I will look back on this story one day amongst hundreds, maybe even thousands of other stories, and be very proud that this was the first female I covered.  She's a perfect example of that Marine bravado and an excellent ambassador for the warrior class.     

Thank you to Warfighter Made for having me by the shop.  Rob Blanton (Marine Force Recon, Silver Star Recipient), Butch Lynch, and Bryan Meyer (Medically Retired USMC, EOD) have an incredible thing going on.  I personally had the honor of meeting Rob, and he's a great man with an incredibly story. Follow them on Facebook at "Warfighter Made."  You can also follow them on Instagram "@warfightermade."  Thanks to Self Made Training Facility in Murrieta, and Kirstie's trainer Ryan for having me along.  Last but not least, of course, I'd like to thank Kirstie for being part of the project.  Follow Kirstie in her trek as she continues to train for the Paralympics and to be the first amputee to climb Mount Carstensz with The Heroes Project.  She will also be attempting to summit Mount Kiliminjaro with Waterboys and former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer in support of clean drinking water on the African continent.  Her Instagram is "@kirstie_ennis."  Like her on Facebook at "Kirstie Ennis" and follow her on Twitter @KirstieEnnis (I've provided links in each name.  Thanks for reading.    

    

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