38 Surgeries and a 1,000-Mile Walk: One Young Veteran's Long Road to Recovery

When Kirstie Ennis' helicopter went down in Afghanistan, she thought her life was over. Really, it was just the beginning

Photo: Courtesy Kirstie Ennis

When she entered the Marine Corps, Sgt. Kirstie Ennis was just 17 years old and already planning on a 20-year-long career in the armed forces.

A minor when she enlisted, Ennis needed her parents’ permission. She knew asking this of her mom and dad before her 18th birthday was a lot, so she told her parents that she’d stick to a desk job, especially in her first few years. The day Ennis left for boot camp, her recruiter accidentally let it slip to her father that she would be working on helicopters.

“My dad didn’t talk to me for some time after that,” she tells PEOPLE.

But six years into her military tenure, during her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, Ennis was forced to medically retire after her helicopter fell from the sky, crashing to the ground, irreversibly altering her body, her mental state and the course of her life.

The Day Everything Changed

On tour in Afghanistan, there were obvious risks, but there was also an excitement that came from the tasks ahead. Ennis says that once flight operations were handed out, there was always buzz among the team. “You’re nervous, but really, you’re more excited than anything,” Ennis says. “We were really looking forward to going out and helping these people.”

One day in June 2012, after a mosque was overthrown in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, a few hours before they were set to take off, things changed. Ennis and her team were informed their departure time had been moved up, and their flight path was being changed, too.

The new plan was to resupply ammunition, transport soldiers and help those near the overthrown mosque. But in the middle of their journey, Ennis and her fellow soldiers began to feel their helicopter going nose up. Tightly strapped into her seat, she couldn’t move – there was nothing anyone could do.

“When they say crash is imminent, you just let go of your machine gun, take a step back and wait,” Ennis says. “That’s all you can do at that point.”

After the helicopter hit the ground, shattering to pieces, Ennis remembers waking up to the sounds of screams. She tried to stand but quickly realized her leg couldn’t support her weight. She tried to scream, and she couldn’t. Moving her tongue around, she felt her mouth was full of blood, and the teeth on the right side of her face and her jaw were gone.

An army medic called to her, talking to her before she passed out again – Ennis credits him with saving her life. She was moved to another helicopter and transported to medical care, but she couldn’t be given any pain medication: because of the damage that had been done to her brain, it could’ve killed her.

Despite the intensity of the crash, the severity of Ennis’ accident didn’t truly sink in until she first spoke to her mother – who was aware her daughter was injured, but not to what extent – days later.

“She kept saying ‘Kirstie, I can’t understand what you’re saying.’ She thought I was just on so much medicine I couldn’t form a sentence anymore,” Ennis says. “I was so scared and frustrated. That’s when I realized what happened to me was going to be a game changer.”

The Long Road to Recovery

Since the crash, Ennis has undergone 38 surgeries. Her injuries left her face nearly unrecognizable, with a hole where her jaw should be, on top of brain damage, burns and broken bones.

After initial treatment from a British plastic surgeon, her many surgeries occurred in multiple countries over the course of several months. Some were just after the accident; others took place overseas but out of Afghanistan, near Iraq and later in Germany. The doctors’ priority was to get her home. Soon, she relocated to Washington, D.C., and finally, Ennis landed at a medical center in San Diego – one she still visits today.

Ennis says those first few months in the hospital were the hardest in her life. She couldn’t eat, drink or really do anything on her own. And because her brain shook so much when the helicopter went down, Ennis’ injuries weren’t just physical but mental as well – her memory and comprehension abilities were affected.

The depth of the damage hit Ennis when she saw her family for the first time after returning to the United States from Afghanistan. “I looked at my mom, my dad and my sister, and they’re siting there crying, and I knew they were my family, but I couldn’t remember anything about them,” Ennis says.

But Ennis pushed herself to move forward. Before the crash, she had plans to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, and she had no intention of changing gears, even though she knew comprehending the material would be a challenge.

“Everyone told me to take a break from school,” Ennis says. “But if I couldn’t go out and physically be the person that I was before, then I was still going to try and mentally test myself to be able to do the things that I was doing beforehand.”

She admits that she struggled. But returning to school gave Ennis her first victory: a sign that she was on her way back to normalcy.

A Different Future

Retiring from military after serving just six of her planned 20 years in the Marines, Ennis wasn’t just faced with regaining her health but also with finding a new future.

“All I had known was the Marines,” she says. “That was my purpose in life and that was now taken from me.”

Born and raised in Florida, she’d rarely seen snow. But when Disabled Sports USA – an organization that provides people living with disabilities opportunities to play adaptive sports – asked her if she wanted to try adaptive snowboarding, she saw it as a way to get out of the hospital and back on her feet.

Although Ennis was on her way to recovery, she still struggled with the day-to-day: running and even walking for long distances proved difficult for her. But through the help of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, she got an IDEO brace, which helps people with leg injuries quite literally get back on their feet.

Now, snowboarding is the 24-year-old’s livelihood. She gave up the opportunity to get her Ph.D. in psychology to focus more of her energy on the sport, and it’s paying off: she’s on track to compete in the 2018 Paralympics.

Ennis now splits her time between Aspen, Colorado, and San Diego, a fairly accurate representation of her life before and after recovery: Aspen is where she trains and competes as a snowboarder (“If there’s snow on the ground, I’ll be in Colorado,” she says), but San Diego is where her doctors are, and it’s important to her to stay with the team that saw her through the majority of her recovery. “These guys have truly given me their all,” she says. “I trust them, and I trust their work.”

Her loyalty makes sense: she’s made a miraculous recovery. But her transformation is ongoing. She admits that due to the wounds and surgeries, her face is drastically different, and she still deals with survivor’s guilt and watches her friends wrestle with it, too. In the past three months, she’s had three friends commit suicide after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Partnering with other veterans, however, is a way to combat such feelings. And she’ll do just that later this year, facing her biggest trial yet: joining Walking with the Wounded’s Walk of Britain, a 1,000-mile trek across the England, Scotland and Wales, which she’ll do alongside other injured vets (and for a portion of the walk, Prince Harry) on behalf of the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The shared experience, as well as the physical challenge, is what drove Ennis to participate. “I served with the British and Australians in Afghanistan, but I never really got to spend any time with them and hear their perspectives,” she says. “This is my chance to go over and thank my allies.”

Ultimately, what pushes her forward is her desire to do right by her military brothers and sisters who did not make it home.

“I’ve been a firm believer that some of the reason that I’m still continuing the way that I am is because of my buddies looking down on me and giving me strength,” she says. “They never made it home, so I’m living, grieving, walking in their honor and in their memory.”

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