Hannah Cvancara was born with a birth defect called fibular hemimelia that resulted in her left leg never growing correctly and the amputation of her left foot when she was just a year old.
But 25 years later, she hasn’t let her reliance on a prosthetic leg stop her from living a full and physical life that includes surfing, rock climbing and long shifts on her feet as a civilian nurse.
Now, Cvancara is trying to make history by becoming the first pre-service amputee to join the Navy, and the Nurse Corps in particular.
Cvancara’s dad was an Air Force flight surgeon, so she grew up a military brat and felt the pull of military service from an early age.
“It’s always been a part of my life, we moved around every few years,” the Spokane, Washington, resident told Navy Times. “I just really have always been interested in joining.”
Cvancara graduated from civilian nursing school in 2019.
She tried to join the Navy before she began school but was turned down because of her condition.
But now, she’s trying again, and she’s got a raft of endorsement letters, stellar physical readiness test results and other evidence that she hopes will lead Big Navy to grant her a waiver to join up as an officer.
“There’s this need, and I’m going to really push this time,” she said. “I think I would excel.”
In addition to her Air Force family, her ex-husband is a Navy officer, so Cvancara feels she understands what military life entails.
“I’ve been born and raised in it, I married into it,” she said. “It’s in my blood.”
Navy Recruiting Command officials said they believe that, if approved, Cvancara would be the first to receive such a waiver.
“I’m not aware of any pre-service amputees getting waivers,” Cmdr. David Benham, spokesman for Navy Recruiting Command, said in an email. “I don’t know if this has ever come up before.”
Any waiver request will receive full consideration, Benham said.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate on possible outcomes until the waiver request has been received,” he added.
Cvancara’s efforts began in earnest last spring, when she walked into her local recruiting office and explained her situation.
“The first response was, of course not, it explicitly states in the rulebook that you can’t be missing a portion of your foot, or something like that,” she recalled.
Still, recruiters let her take a practice PRT and she passed with flying colors, scoring 30 pushups, a 2:30 plank time and a 1.5-mile run in 13 minutes and 29 seconds, all far beyond the minimum requirements for a woman her age.
“The run was fine, everything was great,” Cvancara said.
The Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS, which determines an applicant’s physical qualifications and other standards, has asked her to submit an assessment from an orthopedist, and once she has that in hand, she plans to send it up to MEPS and see what they say.
“I just got checked out and everything’s great,” Cvancara said. “I just want to join to serve, because there’s such a need and I want to, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
Cvancara said she is hopeful she’ll be allowed into the military.
“They are not blatantly saying no, and to me that’s a huge victory,” she said. “That’s all I’m used to is just, ‘no, it’s against the rules.’ I’m really trying to challenge the rules.”
Still, Cvancara said she understands the military’s hesitation in making such an exception.
“Their reasoning is good,” she said. “They’re afraid I’m going to be a liability because I might require accommodation. Here I am with this leg. If I deploy and my leg breaks, what can they do? I have to be completely able, and I understand that.”
Cvancara points out that she hasn’t needed any special accommodations in her life, and her PRT results are proof that she’s physically up for it.
Her waiver package includes letters of support from primary care doctors and two prosthetists, as well as two current military nurses.
Despite losing her foot at the age of 1, Cvancara wrote in a December letter to the Navy that she has played seven sports in her life.
“I take pride in my discipline as a nurse and strength as an amputee, and I hope to combine my patriotism and passion for health care in order to serve as a nurse in the greatest capacity — for the health of our service members and defense of our country,” she wrote.
In one endorsement letter, her prosthetist, Alexandra Gates, noted that Cvancara “is a remarkably active and physically fit person by any measure,” and that her residual limb is unlike most other amputees as Cvancara “does not experience limb shape changes or issues with friction or fit.”
“Her prosthesis is able to keep up with her high activity and level of motivation to participate in activities above and beyond an average person,” Gates wrote.
In a November letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — who met Cvancara when she was a teen — also endorsed her for service.
“In her spare time, Hannah climbs cliffs, snowboards regularly and surfs in the Pacific Ocean,” the Washington Republican wrote. “With nurses in high demand in both the civilian sector and the military, and the demand only expected to grow in the coming decades, the Navy would be doing a great disservice to itself by not considering exceptional candidates like Ms. Cvancara.”
Last month, McMorris Rodgers sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asking that a Defense Department instruction be changed so that “exemplary candidates” like Cvancara can more easily obtain medical exemptions and join recruit training.
“I know Hanna and others like her will show yet again that they can conquer any challenge put in front of them,” the letter states.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.