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Bernetta Williams, U.S. Navy

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Bernetta Williams has always been an advocate for women in the military, and finally, she found a way to provide more opportunities for them. While in Afghanistan during her service as a material liaison officer on a Naval Construction Mobile Battalion for the U.S. Navy, Williams decided to use her advocacy and created an activities center for women on base with the help of MWR, which stands for Morale, Welfare, and Recreation. With this new activities center, Williams became head of fitness to help women navigate the physical training they have to go through in the Military.

“Overseas, my sports background gave me the courage to run without restraints and let go of the fear of my times and people judging how I looked when I ran,” Williams told ESPN. “That was easier to do when you had a team of people cheering you on. I would run alongside other women and encourage them to keep running, even if I didn't think I could do it. Encouraging them motivated me and we would finish together. The higher-ups saw that and asked me to become the head PT coordinator for women. Running now means a lot in my life. While I'm running, I'm able to exhale and not think about my troubles or problems and just live and love. It allows me to clear my head and focus."

Kirstie Ennis, U.S. Marine Corps

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While overseas in Afghanistan, former Marine Kristie Ennis survived a helicopter crash that resulted in many injuries, including the above-the-knee amputation of her left leg and a brain injury. After her medical discharge, Ennis threw herself into mountain climbing and soon found a new purpose in life. Ennis went on to climb the Seven Summits while spreading awareness as well as raising money for nonprofits. Then in 2018, Ennis created the Kristie Ennis Foundation which was able to donate over $70,000 to other nonprofit organizations that serve veterans, women, and the disabled population. The former marine-turned-mountain climber also braved a trek into Everest’s death zone and received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2019 ESPYs.

“I like to think that by doing this, I'm hopefully setting a precedent for someone who is watching me…that I’m breaking down barriers to show people that [people with disabilities] can be out there,” Ennis said in an interview with Glamour. “Hopefully, they’re going to think that they can do it too and that they can do it better than me.”

Laura Ortiz, U.S. Army National Guard

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Laura Ortiz’s inspiring story began after her time in the Army National Guard as a lab technician. Ortiz was 24 when she enlisted in the Army and served from 1993 to 2001, but after returning to her civilian life, Ortiz was involved in a hit-and-run accident while on her motorcycle driving home one day in 2008. Suffering from blood loss and a severely injured leg, doctors had no choice but to amputate her right leg. Ortiz explained to ESPN that life was all about adapting so after recovering from her injuries, she began training to become a Paralympic athlete. On top of her athletic goals, Ortiz also became a beacon of hope for women veterans and began peer mentoring at Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, the same hospital that saved her life after her accident.

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“I believe we are all warriors regardless if you've been in conflict or didn't get deployed,” Ortiz said to ESPN. “There is a connection because you know the sacrifices you had to make to get up in the morning and be away from the people you love. I'm honored I've had this opportunity to represent those who don't have a voice and to give women veterans someone to identify with … I think I make being an amputee cool.”

Lauren Montoya, U.S. Army

Before Lauren Montoya enlisted in the Army, she was just your average college student at Texas A&M University. A Native of Texas, Montoya grew up in a military family so she always felt that she one day would serve her country. And that calling came in 2011. After some time as a human intelligence collector, Montoya was deployed to Afghanistan to help with counterterrorism. Only four months in, however, Montoya suffered extensive injuries when her convoy drove over an IED and her left leg had to be amputated below the knee. Adapting to a new way of life was hard for Montoya at first, but through the Courage of Care Coalition, she found adaptive sports and it “change[d] the defeated attitude” she had.

“When I was a kid, sports were very important,” Montoya said in an interview with ESPN. “After my injury, I found that passion for sports and being athletic again. I started training and went to trials for the Warrior Games, where I competed in swimming — in freestyle and breaststroke — and track. I didn't throw a discus or shot put until I started practicing for the Warrior Games… My injury not only has made me a more fierce competitor, but it lit a fire under me to want to compete. I'm not going to let an injury stop me from doing the things I want to do. And I'm doing this to honor those who can't.”

Shawn Cheshire, U.S. Army

With eight years of service during the Persian Gulf War under her belt, Shawn Cheshire was a helicopter armament specialist for the U.S. Army before being honorably discharged at 25. After her time in the Army, Cheshire went on to become an EMT-Paramedic, but while she was working one day on an ambulance, she slipped on some ice and hit her head. The accident resulted in a traumatic brain injury that left Cheshire completely blind. At first, Cheshire struggled with her disability, but it wasn’t long until she picked herself up by the bootstraps (pun intended) and got into para-sports. Today, Cheshire is an accomplished para-athlete, having raced with the U.S. National Cycling Team all over the world, becoming an 11-time U.S. National champion, and even had the chance to compete at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio for Team USA.

“Looking back now, I was fortunate,” Cheshire said to ESPN. The staff at the VA hospital in Syracuse, New York, was amazing. They cared for me. They forced me to face my depression. They encouraged me and pushed me into adaptive sports.”

Photo credits: ESPN, Chris Weeks/Getty Images, Lauren Montoya’s Instagram, Shawn Cheshire’s Instagram