Losing a Foot Never Held Her Back, Until She Tried to Join the Military

Hanna Cvancara’s dream is to become a nurse in the military and she has been trying to achieve that dream for over a decade. But every time she applies, she gets rejected.

It’s not that the 28-year-old couldn’t get the job done. She now works as an emergency department nurse at a Level II civilian trauma hospital in Spokane, Washington, caring for bleeding car accident victims, drug users in withdrawal attacks, children with seizures, and anything else that comes through the doors. .

And it’s not that I can’t meet physical fitness standards. He can do twice as many push-ups as needed and has finished the 1.5-mile timed run with minutes to spare.

The problem is that Mrs. Cvancara has only one foot and moves with a prosthesis. Then the military won’t let her join.

“I’ve proven I can do the job; now I just have to convince them to let me do it,” he said with a somewhat tired smile as he left the hospital at dawn after a recent night shift. Her stethoscope was still hanging around her neck and she was wearing raspberry-colored sneakers, comfortable enough for a 12-hour shift and, as she noted with the dark humor characteristic of emergency medicine, good for camouflage blood stains.

The U.S. military has always rigorously vetted recruits to weed out anyone unable to perform. In some ways, standards have evolved over time. Flat feet, for example, were no longer disqualifying during the Vietnam War. More recently, childhood asthma and some mental health disorders are no longer warning signs. Yet despite astonishing advances in prosthetics, the military still regards amputees as it did in the days of flintlocks and cannonballs.

The military says it should be wary of anyone who can’t do their job under distressing circumstances. While there is no specific rule prohibiting amputees from serving, in practice, that precaution has meant routinely turning away amputees.

Cvancara, who pronounces her last name “van-CAH-rah,” is determined to change that. She recently re-applied to the military to join the Air National Guard. And in case she is rejected once again, she is working with her congressional representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to pass a bill called the Law of Service Hannah Cvancara that would create an exception to allow amputees to join the military as medical personnel.

It’s not that Cvancara feels he needs an exception.

He was born with a deformed left leg that was amputated when he was in diapers and has worn a prosthesis for so long that he feels like it is part of his body. She grew up in an outdoor family and learned to love backpacking and snowboarding. At school she was on the swim team and played varsity volleyball. She has climbed wild peaks in the Cascades, surfed in the Pacific and competed in the Miss America pageant.

“In my entire life, no one told me I couldn’t do whatever I wanted, until I tried to join the military,” he said. “I don’t want to be treated like I’m special. “I just want to be treated like everyone else.”

Military recruiting commanders don’t seem willing to let that happen.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t amputees in the military. In a baffling bureaucratic twist that seems straight out of a “catch-22,” the military allows amputees to serve, but does not allow them to join.

Lose a leg, or even two, due to injury while in the service, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to stay. The military routinely spends years rehabilitating and expensive surgeries for those service members, making exceptions to physical fitness standards and finding specialized jobs for them to perform, all of which the Department of Defense cites as reasons why it would be too burdensome to allow them. the amputees would join together.

Many troops who lose a limb while deployed eventually return to full duty. Soldiers hit by roadside bombs have redeployed with artificial limbs. Amputees have come to serve as navy divers, marine snipers and Army post commanders.

The injury does not have to be service-related. Two Air Force officers lost legs in a recreational game. boating accidentsand other lost a hand while renovating his kitchen. All three returned to their duties as pilots and were retained by the Air Force as inspiring examples of courage.

“They’ll support you if you show you’re willing and able to do the job,” said Brian Beem, an Army cavalry scout who lost a leg to a roadside bomb on his first deployment to Iraq in 2006. , and then served for another. 12 years. On his second combat deployment, to Afghanistan, he packed a spare leg in case of emergency.

If a one-footed nurse can meet the standards and wants to join, he said, why not let her?

“I learned during my military career that I’d rather have someone by my side who is a little beat up but motivated than someone who doesn’t want to do the job,” he said.

Each military branch has general medical requirements that apply to all recruits, whether they plan to be employees or commandos, according to Beth Asch, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation who studies military recruiting. But policymakers are increasingly aware that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be optimal.

“Ultimately, people have to be fit to serve, but what does it mean to be fit to serve?” Mrs. Asch said. “Do we really need to apply the standards for infantry to a finance person or a logistics person or a nurse?”

While the military has held firm on admitting amputees, it has recently relaxed rules in several other areas in an attempt to fill gaps in recruiting. Recruits may now be older and score lower on aptitude tests than in the past. And more exemptions are being granted for recruits’ medical conditions, prior misconduct or drug use and tattoos. About one in six recruits now receives some type of waiver.

Ms Cvancara finds it difficult to understand why she is not one of them.

Her father was an Air Force doctor and, from a young age, she knew she wanted to follow him into military medicine. When it came time to apply for college in 2013, she sought an ROTC scholarship that would pay for her training. An Air Force recruiter told her that her prosthetic made her ineligible.

That was rejection number one.

She trained to be a civilian nurse and, by chance, worked the clinical hours necessary to earn her degree at Naval Medical Center San Diego. After earning her nursing license in 2020, she applied to join the Navy, confident that she had already proven that she could do the job.

He scored excellently on physical fitness tests, passing the swimming test with and without his prosthesis, and then applied for a medical exemption from Navy Recruiting Command. Several months later, she received a brief message on Navy letterhead that said, “The applicant in question does not meet established physical standards.”

Rejection #2.

The military’s bureaucracy is risk-averse and no one wants to be the first to let an amputee in, said Katherine Kuzminski, who studies the military and society at the Center for a New American Security.

“They don’t want to do it because they have a culture of not doing it,” he said.

“The military’s main goal is lethality and they want to focus on that. The question is whether, today, a person who in the past might have been a liability can now help maintain that lethal advantage.”

Ms. Cvancara expects a decision on whether the Air National Guard will accept her in the fall.

An Air Force spokeswoman said she could not comment on individual applicants but expressed caution about the amputees’ ability to serve.

“Staff, including nurses, often must be ready to deploy on short notice to various environments, including combat zones or areas with limited medical facilities,” spokeswoman Rose Riley said in an email. “The Air Force would consider whether an individual with a below-knee amputation could function effectively in such environments.”

He added that the Air Force “would need to evaluate how well the prosthesis works under different conditions, including its durability and the individual’s ability to perform necessary maintenance or adjustments.”

If Mrs Cvancara is rejected again, it will be for a branch where a pilot who lost a leg in a fighter accident passed by. flight missions in Afghanistan, and a special operations rescue medic who lost a leg in Afghanistan now train other elite doctors.

If the Air National Guard doesn’t accept it, he hopes lawmakers will intervene. Recently, Ms. Cvancara spent a week at the Capitol, knocking on lawmakers’ doors to lobby for the bill that bears her name.

“I want them to see that I am not a risk to the force,” he said. “Let amputees have a chance. Let us show you that we can be an asset.”

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