By: Terresa Monroe-Hamilton
Meet Kirstie Ennis, one of the bravest Americans out there. Her story moved me to tears and I wanted to share it with you.
Kirstie is a 24 year-old Marine Corps veteran who toured in Afghanistan. Her life changed dramatically on June 23rd, 2012 when the massive Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter that she was riding on as the door gunner crashed. She survived, but woke up to a living nightmare that she almost didn’t make it through.
The butt of her gun went through her jaw and ripped it off. She was missing half her face and she was swallowing her teeth. All that happened when her 50-caliber machine gun smashed through the left side of the chopper when it crashed. Her legs and arms were crushed. Kirstie had brain and spinal damage. She thought she was going to die and that it was over for her. They don’t know why the helicopter crashed, but it was fast. When you fall at 150 ft. per second, there’s no time to wonder why. That was the day her career as a Marine ended. It was all she had wanted to do her whole life and now all she wanted to do was survive.
When she woke, she was choking on her own blood in her throat and nose. There was screaming. A medic told her not to close her eyes and stay with him. She knew that if she closed them, she would never open them again. They made it back to Camp Bastion and her long fight began. They really thought she would not make it, but Kirstie is a true Marine… a fighter and she hung on. She was so terrified, she kept throwing up on herself. She knew she would never be the same.
38 surgeries later, Kirstie has her life back. Her left leg has never been right and she lives in constant pain. The doctors wanted to amputate it below the knee this last summer, but Kirstie had one more thing to do before they did what needs to be done and they fit her with a more comfortable prosthetic. She strapped on a carbon-fiber leg brace and declared she was going for a 1,000 mile hike for Prince Harry’s Walking with the Wounded. She walked from Scotland to Britain and found in Prince Harry a kindred soul and a new lifelong friend.
Half a dozen wounded warriors made the trek. Kirstie was the only woman on the walk. She made the amazing journey, pain and all. And when she was done, she knew they would take her leg and she was cool with that. She just wants to get on with her life. It’s been three years since she almost died and they told her she would never walk again. Kirstie had other ideas and proved all of them wrong.
On losing her leg:
I can’t walk more than a quarter of a mile without it and I can’t run. My feeling is if this leg’s going to impede me then let’s get rid of it.
For me it’s about quality of life. I want to have kids one day and be able to run around the yard with them. Having this brace is a constant reminder of what I can’t do.
When I told my doctors I was not going to have the operation until later in the year they were pretty stunned, especially when I told them I was planning to walk 1,000 miles across Britain. It is the hardest thing I’ve done apart from my rehabilitation.
There have been four expeditions of Walking with the Wounded and Prince Harry has been on all of them. He really cares about veterans and I admire him a great deal. The expeditions have visited the North and South poles and Everest. Then there is this one that went from Scotland to Britain. The Walk of Britain has raised a great deal in public donations.
On this hike, the team was made up of British soldiers Stewart Hill, Matt Fisher, Alec Robotham and Scott Ransley, and American former serviceman Andrew Bement, along with Marine Kirstie Ennis. All of them are disabled in one way or another and received their injuries in the line of duty. All of them are incredible heroes and inspirational.
Kirstie looks wonderful these days. Blonde, tan and fit, the only signs that she was horribly injured are a scar on the left side of her face and her leg brace. She has never let being injured rule or destroy her life. She has had three years of intense rehabilitation and speech therapy. She had to learn to speak again. Now, she has a Masters in Business and Psychology. She’s also a stockbroker. She has a boyfriend named Brian, who is also a Marine who was horribly injured in a bomb blast. They’ve been together for a year.
Kirstie is an expert snowboarder and she was just named to the national team for paralympic swimming. She will compete in Prince Harry’s Invictus Games in 2016 for wounded servicemen and women in Orlando next spring:
Confirmation about the national team came through while I was walking with Prince Harry in Norfolk. Harry was really proud and very excited for me. He loves to see veterans excel and overcome their disabilities, that’s what drives him and you can really see that.
Harry met Kirstie at the Warrior Games in Colorado in 2013. Those games were the inspiration for his Invictus Games. They became fast friends on The Walk of Britain. Soldiers are instantly brothers and sisters… more than just friends in fox holes, they share a common bond from the battlefield:
He seems so engaged and committed. He wanted to know my story and I felt I could open up to him and that he really listened. It was just like walking with a friend, or a brother.
The military is a family in that respect. It’s a brotherhood. It really meant something to have Harry walk with us. There were no feelings of superiority. We spent two days together, one walking in Shropshire where we kicked a ball around with [former American football star] Dan Marino which was pretty surreal and another day walking in Norfolk which was so beautiful and very special. There were no cameras that day and I told Harry about my time at Camp Bastion because we were serving in the same place at the same time.
We talked about our shared love of aviation and I asked him when he knew he wanted to be a soldier.
He said from when he was a little boy and that it had always been his dream and that the military has been the greatest thing for him. I was the same when I was a kid. All my dolls were dressed in Marine Corps clothes.
He’s so down to earth and very easy to get along with and he fitted right in with the group, especially with Scott (Ransley) who is blind in his right eye. He’s also very kind and when people came up to say “hi” he made the time for them, especially the kids and you could see it really made their day.
He wanted to know about my family. My mum and dad are both former Marines and I told him my mum is a big fan of the Royals and that she loved his mother Princess Diana. I also teased him that I’ve probably seen more baby photos of him than he has and he laughed about that. Everyone at home is tickled that I got to meet Harry and walk with him.
While they were hiking, Harry’s knees gave him grief after one of the 15 mile hikes was finished. Kirstie ribbed him over it and the group teased him. No complaining allowed on the warrior front. The group walked up to 18 miles a day and Harry lightened the load for all of them. His spirit and upbeat attitude pushed all of them on and lifted them up. That’s a true leader for you:
It’s not been easy. With my injuries I deal with pain constantly and it affects me physically and emotionally. I’ve never felt as disabled as I have done on this walk. It has been so hard. It was great when Prince Harry joined us.
It’s been a long trying road. The crash left me with so many injuries, mental and physical. I’ve basically had my face rebuilt. As a young woman I was dealing with a disfigured face, my neck, back and legs were in braces and I thought “I will never be the same girl again’’.
I’ve not got the same body I was born with, but they’ve done a great job. I used to be embarrassed by the scars on my face.
I used to not like smiling because I didn’t have a jaw or my teeth. It was so hard, a constant reminder of the things that happened. Now it’s a reminder of what I’ve overcome. I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve been given two shots at life and actually in some ways I’m thankful that this happened to me because it has made me a stronger person without a doubt.
Every 40 miles, Kirstie placed dog tags and a poem in memory of her fallen colleagues. They are gone, but not forgotten and it is a sign of respect and love for those that have perished while putting their lives on the line for others:
Harry and I spoke about this and he’s determined to do what he can to help those who come home from war and are suffering post-traumatic stress. It’s a real issue at home.
Harry asked if he could lay one with me in Shropshire. We stopped at a castle for lunch and left one of the tags at a war memorial we found in the grounds along with a poem, which Harry read.
The idea is that they laid their lives down for strangers, now strangers will come across these tags and honour their memories and legacies. Harry really got it and he really understood me.
It’s surreal. I’ve visited the Palace as a tourist and had my picture taken there.
Now I’m going to be there with my team and Prince Harry who’s going to help me place the last tag at Buckingham Palace which is something I will never forget.’
When Harry gathered with the other wounded soldiers at Buckingham Palace yesterday, he welcomed exhausted, yet jubilant fighters in quiet triumph. Kirstie was going to lay the last dog tag and letter there, but in the end pressed it into Harry’s hand and told him to keep it. He said he couldn’t, but he accepted the honor. It was from one warrior to another:
She had planned to place the last one at Buckingham Palace, but when the moment came, she was overwhelmed and pressed it into Harry’s hand.
“No I can’t, I can’t accept this,” a clearly moved Harry said.
“Please, you know what this means to me, I want you to,” Ennis replied, fighting back her tears. They then hugged.
The dog tag was in honor of Corporal Baune, from Minnesota, who died in Helmand Province in 2012 after his unit was hit by blast from an IED while on patrol.
Baune “passed away just 10 days before my helicopter went down and I was injured and the two guys who got blown up with him, Brad and Chris, and are missing their legs now have been part of my own support network in dealing with my own injuries,” Ennis told reporters.
“They were my rocks for a long time, we grew together in hospital. His wife, Colleen, is absolutely amazing. He was just 21.
“I look at situations like that, he never came home, he had a wife and a family but he never came home. The six of us here today did come home, we are actually the lucky ones. The least we can do is share their legacy and honor their memory.
“Harry was reluctant to accept it at first because he knows how much it means [to me]. He has helped me lay a couple of them and was hesitant to take them as he knows how much it means to me. I told him he had to.”
This band of brothers and a sister walked a shattering 1,000 miles on a journey to raise money for Walking with the Wounded. And Prince Harry will smile, as he should, at a job well done by those who never gave up.
They are an inspiration to all of us. It makes me feel like never complaining about anything ever again and it motivates me to get up and fight once more. It’s not winning, it’s the journey that makes your life. These heroes show that. Harry’s heroine is a brave American that should be someone that our children and all of us look up to. Here’s to one hell of a Marine and someone I admire more than words can say. Today I honor wounded U.S. Marine Kirstie Ennis.