Military amputee shares what it means to be strong

Holding back emotions, Annika Hutsler knows about chasing a dream. 

"The Marine Corps is known as the hardest boot camp. It is the most physically demanding. And I just knew that I honestly, I felt like I had something to prove. And female Marines all have something to prove. And we do. We prove to the world that we are the strongest, the toughest, the most strong-willed, not saying that the other branches aren't. But female Marines are definitely a completely different breed of of military women."

This former ballet dancer wanted to serve to be a part of something bigger, and immediately fell in love with the camaraderie of the military. She enlisted right out of college in 2017.

"You know the Marines are already the few and the proud. And so the joke was always the female Marines are the few and the prouder. And it just really meant a lot that we're already such a small number."

"So during boot camp, I actually had some pain in my foot. But that's kind of be expected. I'm this 21-year-old girl who's never really done sports, done this kind of physical activity, and all of a sudden my foot starts to hurt. So initially I was written off as, ‘Hey, this is a normal thing.’ Like 'you're just in pain.' Marines love to say pain is weakness leaving the body. And that pain never went away. And after about nine months of being in pain and going to medical to try to figure out what was wrong, they did find a tumor in my right foot."

That's when her dream of a career as a Marine pirouetted in the other direction.

"So after about 14 months of surgeries, of procedures which ultimately led to infections and being in the hospital, chronic nerve pain, just being in pain in general, I electively decided to amputate my leg below the knee on April 2nd, 2019."

She had to reimagine her entire life, figure out the most normal tasks around the house, and learn how to drive with her left foot.

But the most painful of all was nothing physical.

"That's the hardest part, is knowing that this was my dream. Now, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to commission and become an officer as soon as I hit the fleet. And I wanted to serve 20 years and do all of these great things as a Marine. And now that dream's getting taken away from me."

Despite a forced retirement, her military family was still there to help through the Semper Fi America Fund, which helped Annika get re-acclimated to her new life. 

"I was having a really rough time and I called my case manager just to cry to her… and that's the kind of support that you need. Sometimes you don't need physical things all the time. Sometimes you just need somebody who's going to listen, tell you that you're not crazy and tell you that your feelings are valid."

She turned to adaptive sports as therapy, an outlet to show her strength, earning multiple medals in the Warrior Games the same year of her amputation.

"I was competing in wheelchair track, wheelchair rugby, swimming, archery."

Now she's a fierce skier and hopes to compete in the 2026 Paralympics in alpine skiing. 

"I just want to make a difference in this community… I want people to know that asking for help does not mean you're weak. It means you're strong enough to realize that there's a problem and other people are willing to help you through it."

"Sometimes plan a doesn't work out, sometimes Plan B doesn't, but you're going to figure it out," she said. "Your mind is a very powerful thing and you are really able to accomplish much more than you think."