A Nurse with an Amputation Hopes to Join the Air Force. A New Bill Could Allow Her to Do So.

by Braxton Taylor

Hannah Cvancara grew up watching military documentaries with her father, visiting war museums on family vacations, and playing with the little toy soldiers dutifully deployed to her windowsill. She would look at the small green men molded into their fighting positions and knew, even though she was missing her left foot, she wanted to serve some day.

Cvancara is the namesake of the “Hannah Cvancara Service Act,” a bill introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in February. If passed, it would allow amputees interested in joining the military to serve in medical personnel fields in the National Guard, reserves and on active duty.

“The goal is to create more opportunities for individuals with a disability — who can otherwise prove their physical fitness — to serve their country with honor in a role they are capable of executing,” Kyle VonEnde, spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, told Military.com in an email.

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Cvancara, who currently works as an emergency room nurse in Spokane, Washington, hopes to join the Air National Guard if given the chance.

The bill adds an amendment to Title 10, Chapter 49, of the U.S. Code, which provides the guidelines for military service. While Cvancara’s bill is tailored specifically to allow individuals with amputations to serve in military medicine, the hope is to expand service options across other occupational specialties.

“Baby steps,” Cvancara said of her and McMorris Rodgers’ decision to narrow the reach of the bill. “The hope is, if we start small, and the bill gets passed, we can always revise it to include other things. It may be even more than amputees, maybe more than medical personnel roles.”

If successful, she would potentially be the first pre-service amputee allowed to join the military, defense officials said. Cvancara was born with a condition called fibular hemimelia, meaning she was born without a fibula bone and had a few other bone defects through her left leg and foot. As a one-year-old, she underwent a below-the-knee amputation and has been using prosthetics since.

This didn’t stop her, however, from being physically active growing up. Cvancara played volleyball, swam competitively, rock-climbed, practiced gymnastics and surfed. As an adult, Cvancara has remained active, completing a 10-kilometer Spartan Race in 2022, and she works out regularly.

As part of her first attempt at joining the Navy in 2021, she scored well above the minimums needed to pass a physical readiness test, doing 30 push-ups, a 2:30 minute plank, and a 1.5-mile run in 13 minutes and 29 seconds. Excluding her left leg, Cvancara otherwise passed her Military Entrance Processing Station exams, all but qualifying her for entry into the Navy.

Despite this, Cvancara received a letter from Navy Recruiting Command in 2022, thanking her for her interest in serving but saying ultimately it was not enough.

“Based on a review of available medical information, the subject applicant does not meet established physical standards due to left leg below the knee amputation, patella chondromalacia,” which is a medical condition of the knee, and a number of other physical ailments related to her left leg, the letter said. “Unfortunately, a waiver of the physical standards cannot be issued.”

In response, Cvancara turned to her local congresswoman, McMorris Rodgers, who pushed for a solution on the legislative side. This is when the first version of the bill was introduced under the umbrella of the National Defense Authorization Act. The provision made it through the House, but failed to make the final version of the NDAA, having been dropped while on the Senate floor. It wasn’t that it necessarily faced opposition, Cvancara said, it just wasn’t a top priority and didn’t make the cut.

While some people may be concerned that allowing those with amputations to serve would lower standards or endanger service members — the amputees included — while deployed, Cvancara said there are actually some advantages to think about.

“What would you do if your leg breaks [while deployed]?” Cvancara asked, laughing. “Mine at least is made of titanium and steel, and I’m pretty sure it’s a lot stronger than real legs, and it wouldn’t hurt. So … if that did happen, well, I’ll have an Allen wrench with me.”

McMorris Rodgers and Cvancara stress that the goal is not to lower standards — a detail specifically noted in the bill and a topic discussed at length as the branches attempt to combat dismal recruiting numbers.

In 2023, only the Marine Corps and Space Force — the two smallest services — met their recruiting quotas. And while the military took a variety of approaches to jump-start public interest in military service, including the Air Force loosening prior tattoo and drug testing policies and the Navy offering record-high incentives of up to $140,000, it still wasn’t enough.

The Hannah Cvancara Service Act may apply only to a small number of Americans, but it could signal an alternative solution for one facet of recruitment troubles.

Cvancara is scheduled to meet with lawmakers over the next few weeks to discuss their potential support of the bill.

“I have a skill set in nursing that I want to use, and I’d like to use it to serve with and for our service members, alongside them,” Cvancara said. “[If this bill passes] I can combine the passion I have for my job with helping people who serve, combining my passion and my patriotism.”

— Rachel Nostrant is a Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist, with work published in Reuters, New York Magazine, Military Times and more.

Related: Quadruple Amputee Marine Opens Up About the Moment That Helped Him Overcome Depression

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