A leather wallet with anchors stenciled into the fabric, a phone clock telling time in 24-hour format and Navy keychains.
These items embody the spirit of a sailor.
They belong to Hannah Cvancara, a nurse who wants to join the Navy but was denied. The only tangible reason: Cvancara uses an Össur manufactured prosthetic left leg, which labels her as “medically disqualifying.”
Through perseverance, self-advocacy and support from members of Congress, Cvancara is working to change that, and perhaps expand opportunities and set new rules for the Navy.
“I love this country, and I just have to try a little harder and I’m OK with that,” Cvancara said. “I’m built for that, I have the patience for that. I want to be able to advocate for the disabled community using my story if I can.”
Cvancara, 26, has fibula hemimelia, a birth defect where the bones in her legs, ankle and foot do not grow with the body. For Cvancara, societal constructs of able-bodiedness were an afterthought. She played seven sports through grade school, hails from a hiking, outdoor family and stays active through swimming and running.
Most of her seven surgeries took place during growth spurts. In a family photo, Cvancara is an infant, smiling, with a pink cast on the newly amputated leg.
“First time ever walking was on a prosthetic leg,” she said. “My last surgery was in 2017 after I took a major fall country swing-dancing in Moscow, Idaho. I shattered my patella and had to get surgeries to clear it all out, but I’ve been great since then.”
Cvancara, a graduate of The Oaks Christian Academy in Spokane Valley, has been patriotic as long as she can remember. While growing up, she moved frequently since her father was a flight surgeon in the Air Force. She has other family members and friends in the military. She once was a military spouse.
In 2017, when the Navy declined her wish to serve and cited her prosthetic leg, she couldn’t let it go.
“It haunted me,” Cvancara said. “I kept that letter as a reminder that I still hate that.”
“Why does it bother me so much? I think (what I took) from that is, I’ve got to push more,” she added, “because I know what they said, but I’m just not willing to take that ‘No’ for an answer.”
Critics have suggested Cvancara just become affiliated with the local Veteran Affairs officers, but it does not scratch Cvancara’s itch to make change immediately. Instead of aiding veterans’ conditions, she wants to work with active-duty soldiers, solving health issues as they arise.
“In the action is where I find my desire to be, getting ahead of (problems), being proactive versus caring for the people who’ve already had the damage been done to them. I am more focused on the younger population, and what I can do to prevent some of the things that we see are coming up,” she said.
One of the biggest concerns is, once deployed, Cvancara may require emergency treatment on her leg. But Cvancara was on remote-duty with her ex-husband in Portugal for almost three years. She said she did not require any assistance then.
She earned her nursing degree from National University in 2019, and currently works as an orthopedic nurse at Northwest Orthopaedic Specialist in Spokane. Critical care is a fast-paced environment that requires lifting and moving patients during 12-hour shifts, and ensuring patient comfort and safety during their stay. Cvancara, once a reoccurring patient herself, wants to use all of her life experiences to her advantage.
“It says in the (military) medical standard rulebook, if you are missing a part, then that’s it, there’s no chance. They don’t even give you a second look,” she said. “And I feel like in the disabled community, we have to try a little extra hard to at least be like, ‘Look, we can do it.’ ”
Concerns about Cvancara’s physicality and mobility were also raised. So, instead of explaining, she realized showing was better than telling. She participated in the Physical Readiness Test, an examination of participants’ general fitness before boot camp.
For women ages 25 to 29, the satisfactory score for the test requires 15 pushups, a 1-minute, 20-second plank and running 1.5 miles in under 15 minutes, 45 seconds. Cvancara, tallied 30 pushups, planked for 2 minutes, 30 seconds and ran the distance in 13 minutes , 29 seconds. Her only complaints: Not a big fan of cardio, she prematurely stopped the plank to save energy, and the prosthetic she wore during the test was a “brick of a leg.”
“I took it to say, ‘Here’s my objective results from the PRT. Here’s what I can do. Give me a chance,’ ” Cvancara said. “I know what the rules say, but I’m looking past that to try to get you to see. Look, I’m already a nurse, I work full time, I’m on my feet all the time. Nothing would change for me. I don’t require accommodation.”
Cvancara’s supporters are military-disabilities activists as well, such as Sara Hart Weir, an expert in disability policy. Weir is the former president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society and in 2020 lost a bid for Congress representing Kansas with a campaign surrounding new policies that mirror the Americans with Disabilities Act .
Cvancara is calling on political allies such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. The two worked on Cvancara’s Miss Spokane 2013 campaign “Honoring Their Sacrifice: Recognizing and Supporting our Disabled Veterans.”
On Nov. 22, McMorris Rodgers addressed a letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro stating that Cvancara is “an exceptional woman who never loses sight of her goals and accomplishes everything she sets her mind to.”
“She’s been an inspiration to people throughout Eastern Washington, especially young children with disabilities who see her as an example of how anyone, no matter their ability, can achieve their dreams,” McMorris Rodgers wrote. “Hannah has never let the circumstances of her childhood amputation hold her back from anything she’s chosen to do in life.”
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