Born and raised in a military family, Hannah Cvancara has always wanted to serve her country by joining the military as a nurse, but current regulations forbid her from making her dream a reality. She is a unilateral below-knee amputee and currently works as an orthopedic nurse. She lost her leg to a congenital disability called Fibular Hemimelia when she was just one year old.
Now, she’s sharing her story to show the military that she’s ready to serve – even if they refuse to have her.
Proving Her Worth
Cvancara didn’t take the traditional route to becoming a nurse. She obtained a BSN degree from four different colleges in six years while undergoing three surgeries and four military relocations. Now, she is setting her sights on the military.
“I am proud to use my hard-earned skills as an orthopedic nurse, and I aspire to combine my patriotism and passion for healthcare to serve as a nurse in the greatest capacity— for the health of our service members and defense of our country,” she said.
She believes she is more than qualified to be a military nurse. But the armed forces won’t let her join because she uses a prosthetic leg, which classifies her as “medically disqualifying”.
“There is a dire need for nurses in our county, especially within our military, and we cannot expect to protect and defend our country without protecting those who serve it. Our nation must maintain a strong military force through the help of medical professionals who are both willing and able to serve. My goal is to help meet this need as an active-duty navy nurse,” she said.
It’s true that both civilian and military nurses are in high demand, so why is the military turning down qualified applicants?
The military has a blanket policy that prevents prior amputees from enlisting due to the potential accommodations they may require that could prevent them from being deployable.
“Even though I passed the Navy’s physical requirements with excellent scores to become a Navy Nurse, I was still automatically disqualified because my amputation existed before service.” Cvancara stated.
If soldiers are injured or become disabled while serving in the military, they can continue to serve in some capacity, but this option doesn’t exist for prior amputees.
“If I had become an amputee as an officer, I would still be given a choice to keep serving. Disability is a non-negotiable problem for military service, but only when it is a pre-existing condition. Regardless of my life-long experience with my disability, it seems my false leg is still a false start,” she added.
Cvancara said the military is discriminating against people with disabilities by assuming they need additional assistance.
“Even though I doubled the minimum necessary scores in some criteria during my Navy physical fitness test, my results were not even considered because of the assumption that my amputation must require accommodation. It doesn’t matter that I work full time as a nurse already or that I lived remotely in Europe during the Coronavirus pandemic and in seven additional states without the need for accommodation,” she said.
She would like to see the military adopt a more case-by-case approach, so she can prove to them that she has a role to play in the armed forces.
“Just because I may not be ‘whole’ does not mean I cannot be helpful. If I can surpass the physical tests administered to every potential service member, then I pose no greater liability than anyone else. So why not reform the standards for disability within the military?” she said.
A Change in Approach
Cvancara believes the military could benefit from recruiting more people with disabilities and that this discrimination is robbing them of some much-needed talent.
“To be clear, I’m not asking that we ignore disability and pretend that it doesn’t exist. I’m asking that we do not ignore ability. There can be physical limits for amputees and other disabled individuals, but these limitations often develop into new strengths both inside and outside military service. In my case, the patience and resilience I developed on one leg only strengthened my abilities as a nurse and my character as a whole. I can empathize with the pain and vulnerability in my patients, and my experience would only benefit the small population that comprises our military community,” she said.
“Our military will access an entire population of capable, patriotic defenders that were previously overlooked. An untapped resource of resilient individuals, each with their unique capabilities and strengths, are ready and waiting for service. We’re also waiting to be fairly measured and get the chance to prove our abilities. The military generally considers service based on medical history and does not consider the physical tests, the testimonials, or the proof— all of which I have. I’m not asking that we lower the standards for service whatsoever; I’m simply asking that the Bureau of Medicine and the Surgeon General look at my results.” Cvancara added.
Her fight speaks to the way society treats people with disabilities overall. She knows many people with disabilities that feel they must constantly prove their worth to others that only see their disability.
“We’ll have a stronger Nursing Corps and a more breathable society where strength and opportunity are not suffocated by pity or stereotypes. We as a nation will have what our military always wants and desperately needs: Patriots serving patriots. We have the opportunity to strengthen our military, not just in numbers, but in diversity and shared values.”
Cvancara is currently trying to gather support on Capitol Hill for a change in policy that would consider military recruits based on their performance, not blanket policies based on bias.
She will address the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and the Surgeon General along with her supporters, “so that the voices of disabled citizens will be heard,” she said.