At age 21, Kirstie Ennis was living the life of her dreams. The daughter of two Marines, she had enlisted at 17 and was flying combat and rescue missions in Afghanistan as an aerial observer and gunner. “I was the eyes and ears for the pilot, letting him know what’s going on behind and around him,” she says. “I’m small—5’4” and 115 pounds—and as a woman I had to fight tooth and nail to prove that I could do the job. But it was worth it. I loved everything about it.”
June 23, 2012, started like any other day. She and her team had already completed one mission and were en route to pick up Marines who were pinned down in an active combat zone in Helmand Province, when their helicopter suddenly went nose down, then rolled to the left and crashed. “I just watched the ground come towards me and hoped I would open my eyes afterward,” she recalls.
Rebuilding a life
Kirstie suffered a traumatic brain injury as well as severe damage to her face, spine, shoulders and left leg. “When you're recovering from a traumatic injury, you don't just lose yourself physically but mentally and emotionally,” she says now. “You wonder if you'll ever be the same person again. For me that was a pretty huge internal battle.”
One year after the accident, on her “Alive Day,” as critically injured vets call their traumatic anniversaries, she tried to take her own life. “It was a very dark time, and I thought I didn't want to be here anymore,” she says. “After my suicide attempt, my dad was the one who talked some sense into me. He said, ‘The enemy didn't kill you. Why would you try to do it yourself? You’re tougher than that.’ It was just what I needed to hear.”
Afterward, Kirstie stopped dwelling on what she couldn't do and began thinking about what she could do. Several months before, a group called Disabled Sports USA had taught her to snowboard, and she loved it. “During the following season, I trained hard, and that became my lifeline,” she says. “Snowboarding restored my confidence and gave me joy. It literally got me up on my own two feet again.”
Seeking new summits
In the years after the crash, Kristie endured dozens of surgeries to reconstruct her face and attempt to save her left leg. Then in 2015, doctors had to amputate the leg—first below the knee, then, after an infection set in, above the knee. “With an above-the-knee amputation you’re basically starting from scratch in learning how to use your leg again,” she says.
Instead of losing hope, she got hungry. She threw herself into mountain climbing, and set herself the goal of summiting the Seven Summits—the highest peaks on all seven continents, including Everest.
In March this year she summited Kilimanjaro, then in July topped Indonesia’s technical and treacherous Carstensz Pyramid—the first combat-wounded female amputee to achieve both peaks. “Carstensz was brutal,” she says. “We were climbing in blizzards, but I proved to myself I could do it.” Now she has her sights set on snowboarding in the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea.
“After my accident, I did lots of psychotherapy, but talking to someone who had no idea what I’d been through didn't help,” she says. “Being physical did. It gave me a sense of purpose, made me believe in myself and showed me how resilient my body is. It gave me goals, led me to a career and gave me the courage and strength I needed to move past my injury and into the future.”