Veteran and Roaring Fork Valley resident points a challenging past toward a brighter future
Circumstances aren’t exactly ideal right now.
That’s no reason to get too distraught, however, said Kirstie Ennis, a 29-year-old Glenwood Springs brewmaster and retired U.S. Marine Sgt. who lost a leg in the line of duty.
“Guess what? Life’s not meant to be perfect or fair,” Ennis said Friday, two days after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment raised Garfield County’s Covid-19 threat level to orange – or high risk. “Life’s a marathon – not a sprint. So no matter what life throws at you, you can take it with a grain of salt and keep moving forward.”
A series of dramatic events separates the former sergeant and helicopter machine gunner from this major epiphany.
Tasked with protecting a Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter and everyone inside it, Ennis said it was June 2012 – six weeks away from coming home – when a combat situation changed everything. Under duress from the enemy just outside a Forward Operating Base, the aircraft began making an uncontrollable descent.
“I just counted in my head: five, four, three, two, one,” Ennis said. “I didn’t even pray or panic.”
The eventual impact left Ennis with a fist-sized hole in face, her jaw lost, her left leg gone, among various wounds to her arms and eyes, she said.
Thankfully, no one died in the crash. Ennis, however, had some dark days ahead.
About a year later, Kirstie Ennis tried to take her own life. She said she felt “robbed of her purpose, her memory, her career.”
“The next day, my dad came to me as he was crying and he said, “You’ve got to be shittin’ me, the enemy couldn’t kill you and now you’re going to do it for them?” she said.
That moment helped her realize she was actually one of the lucky ones.
She had the rest of her life to live.
“It gave me the opportunity to take a step back and say, ‘Why are you doing this, where do you want to be, how are you going to continue serving people beyond the military?’” she said.
For Ennis, she said she began to learn to suffer. And even after 45 surgeries, constant physical therapy, the suffering has helped churn some rather commendable accomplishments.
You may have seen her on the cover of ESPN Magazine. You may have heard about her climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2018 with former NFL defensive end Chris Long, son of legendary Hall-of-Famer Howie Long.
You also may have heard about the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, which aims to help underserved communities, while also providing various opportunities for people such as paraplegics.
Whatever you’ve seen or heard, Ennis is doing everything she can to make other people’s standard of life – and her own – better.
“My problems don’t matter in the grand scheme. Mountaineering has taught me that I’m small,” she said. “But I get bigger by the relationships and the community and the spider web that we build over time.”
It was just after Charlottesville, Virginia resident Allie Redshaw lost her arm that Chris Long, who lived in the area, contacted her husband Ian.
“When I got injured, (Long) immediately reached out to my husband and gave him Kristie’s contact,” she said. “He said, ‘You need to reach out to this woman – she’ll be a huge asset for Allie. She’ll be her friend, she’ll help her, she’ll answer questions… she’s just an amazing person.’”
Nearly four years ago, Redshaw, a chef in the Charlottesville area, said she got her hand stuck in an industrial meat grinder in a restaurant kitchen. The toll led to the subsequent amputation of her right wrist.
After talking with Long, Redshaw eventually called Ennis. By September, she was already booking a flight to Colorado to meet the parapalegic Marine with the aim of undergoing therapy, as well taking up something Ennis has highly excelled at over the years: rock climbing.
“She’s totally selfless,” Redshaw said of Ennis. “She’s totally invested wholeheartedly in seeing other amputees succeed, and just to see them be given opportunities is life giving to her.”
More recently, in fact, Redshaw came out to meet Ennis for the second time. The two would rock climb all throughout the Front Range and the Western Slope.
“It’s incredible how far you can get just coming out here and spending five days with Kirstie,” Redshaw said.
Redshaw, who now operates a catering business out of her Virginia home, has a major goal she wants to accomplish: competing in paraclimbing at the Olympic level.
“Not only did (Ennis) set me up,” said Redshaw, “But then she said, ‘Hey, you were really good and I really think you can go really far, so let’s do this.’”
Don’t get wrapped up in the whole story of the pandemic, says Kirstie Ennis. Focus on what we can do now.
“If we sit here and dwell on everything that’s been taken away from us or the restrictions that we have placed on us, of course we’re all going to get down and out,” she said. “For now, I think it’s really important that we focus on our families, focus on the friendships, and the relationships that really are deserving of our time.”
Ennis says count your blessings. Readjust. Be patient.
Right now, even if you’re a restaurant owner, don’t throw out your food if you can’t sell it, Ennis says.
“If you know that in your heart of all hearts you’re not going to be able to sell it, you’re not going to turn your profit, go to the food banks,” she said. “ We’re around the holidays right now, when there’s going to be tons of people in need.”
If your hours at your job are reduced, Ennis says go take some time, go to your closet, find a jacket to donate.
“People are going to be in need,” she said.
Most of all, says Ennis, help others.
“Everything around us has a story, and if we can actually be a part of that story, that’s what makes life worth living,” she said. “and to tie it into stories… 2020 is just a chapter.”
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