Chris Van Etten started modeling after people in his hometown told him he motivated them to be better people

By Julie Mazziotta
Updated June 17, 2016 02:00 PM
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Standing tall and strong on a pair of prosthetic legs, Chris Van Etten is a symbol of grit and determination in his ad for Jockey.

It’s a job he never would have imagined for himself a few years ago. But now, the double amputee and former Marine is hoping to motivate others as a model.

Almost four years ago to the day, on May 13, 2012, Van Etten was in Afghanistan, when his friend and fellow Marine stepped on an IED. Van Etten and the rest of his squad ran out to help, and right as they were about to lift up his friend, Van Etten stepped on a second IED, and lost both of his legs.

The recovery was difficult, Van Etten, 25, tells PEOPLE.

“I would describe it kind of like a rollercoaster,” he says. “At the beginning you’re still so shocked, and then I was so concerned about learning to walk again. And then when everything finally slowed down I was overwhelmed with all the mental aspects of it.”

But he fought hard to stop himself from experiencing post-traumatic stress.

“I didn’t want something like that to control my entire life, so that’s something that I worked on everyday to show that I’m in control of my whole life.”

To take his mind away from it, Van Etten started working out consistently at the gym.

“I started feeling better about myself when I started becoming more and more active,” he says. “When I realized that this thing did happen, but I can still be just like anyone else. I may have to try harder than other people, but I can still do what I can do.”

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And it was a trip to the gym that led Van Etten to start modeling.

“A lady in my hometown saw me working out in the gym one day, and I was having a bad day and I guess she was too,” he says. “She put up a Facebook post talking about this amputee at the gym and how motivating it was. And she was talking about me and it’s kind of what triggered the fitness aspect of my lifestyle.”

“I wanted to find a way to show the image of strength. And doing a few modeling ads was a good way.”

The ads with Jockey in particular were a perfect fit for his goal of motivating others, and a dream campaign for Van Etten.

“The message is about strength, about showing strength and perseverance through all odds,” he says. “The main idea of the campaign is there’s a part of everyone that the public doesn’t see, and to show what’s underneath, what’s great about you.”

Now Van Etten hopes to work as a motivational speaker, and eventually open up his own gym to help everyone – especially those with injuries – find their strength.

“Everyone’s going to have problems, but it’s what you do with those problems and how you chose to go about that, that really shows character.”