SAN DIEGO — People stare at Chris Van Etten wherever he goes, but he doesn’t mind. The 25-year-old Marine veteran has used prosthetic legs since a 2012 bomb blast in Afghanistan, so he understands the public’s curiosity. He just wishes they’d ask him what happened, because he’s got a story to tell.
All this summer, the San Diego man is sharing that story through ads on television, movie screens, the Internet, magazines and billboards as the main poster boy for Jockey International’s “Show ‘Em What’s Underneath” campaign. The ultra-fit model, athlete and college student said he was at a low ebb in the year after the explosion that took both his legs and his best friend. He hopes the ads will inspire others going through a difficult time.
“I’ve seen lots of guys in my situation and they can go both directions,” he said of his fellow military amputees. “Some just can’t get out of that bad place. I’m hoping to show people that if I can go from down there to up here, that they can do it, too.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Van Etten talked about his transformation in an interview at Fitness101, a La Mesa gym where he spends about eight hours a week lifting weights. He was on break from a week-long Jockey media tour that began July 4 on NBC’s “Today” show.
The “Show ‘Em” ad campaign features three “everyday heroes” in their Jockey briefs. Company spokesman Matthew Waller said the three Americans chosen for the ads reflect the 140-year-old Wisconsin company’s core values, including family unity (adoptive father Michael Cottone) and courage (female firefighter Lisa Cusimano). Van Etten represents the quality of perseverance.
“He’s a fine young man whose values and moral compass are right in line with what we were looking for. We were very lucky to find him,” Waller said.
“What happened to me sucked. I’m not going to pretend like it didn’t,” Van Etten says in a TV commercial showing him exercising in his briefs and prostheses. “Not all of us are lucky enough with the gift of a full life. As long as I have mine, I’m going to celebrate the best I can.”
Van Etten’s parents, Wayne and Leigh, both spent 20 years in the Air Force. Chris, the eldest of their three sons, said he dreamed of being in the service from the time he was a boy.
“It was all I ever knew and I decided that whether I was in for four years or 40, I was going to serve my country,” he said.
He met with a recruiter before his senior year of high school in O’Fallon, Ill., then joined right after graduation in 2009. In March 2012, he landed in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, known as “Suicide Charley.”
Van Etten, who handled bomb-sniffing dogs, was on a night patrol near Sangin on June 12 when a fellow Marine stepped on an improvised explosive device. As Van Etten and his buddy, Cpl., T.J. Baune, were loading the injured man on a stretcher, Van Etten stepped on a second mine.
“I remember all of it,” he said. “I was tossed up in the air and it felt like I flipped over five or six times before I fell back in the crater and hit my head. I had temporary amnesia for about 10 or 12 seconds, then I looked up and saw the sky and took a few breaths and knew I was alive. That’s when I looked down and saw I’d lost my legs.”
In the typical gallows humor of Suicide Charley, Van Etten said the first thing that crossed his mind was a joke. “Maybe it was the shock or the adrenaline but I saw my legs were gone and said ‘I guess I’m not going to be riding my motorcycle when I get home.'”
Baune, a 21-year-old newlywed from Minnesota, died in the blast. His name, and that of another buddy, Lance Cpl. Curtis Duarte (killed just two months later), are tattooed on Van Etten’s left shoulder. His right arm bears a large tattoo of Michael the Archangel slaying demons. It replaces the St. Michael medal that blew off Van Etten’s neck and disappeared in the blast.
Van Etten spent three weeks recovering at the San Diego Naval Medical Center. Just two months after he left the hospital, he was fitted with his first pair of prostheses, a remarkably fast time from amputation to fitting.
“It was just sheer grit. I was so determined to be on my feet to greet my unit when they came home in October 2012,” he said. “I didn’t want them to see me as someone other than just Chris.”
Van Etten returned to O’Fallon to start a new life, but instead fell into a deep depression that lasted a year. Then he joined a gym, hoping the endorphins released through exercise would lift his spirits. One day, a woman saw him working out and posted a note on Facebook that his positive attitude had inspired her to train harder.
“A friend sent me her Facebook message and it really made me think,” he said. “If I can be motivating people and I don’t even know it, imagine what I could do if I tried?”
Ever since that day in mid-2013, Van Etten’s life has been on a sharply upward trajectory.
He got back on his motorcycle, started playing wheelchair lacrosse and mono-skiing, then in 2013 he used a hand cycle to complete the Marathon in Washington, D.C. After he was medically retired from the in August 2013, the dog that had served him in Afghanistan — a yellow Lab named Harley — was granted early retirement to be his personal service dog.
In January of last year, Van Etten met his now-fiancee Samantha Yovandich, 25, at a gym in O’Fallon where she worked as a personal trainer. She saw only his head and shoulders from across the room and was instantly smitten. When she learned he was a double amputee, she knew they were meant for each other.
“When I was a little girl my aunt had a rare bone cancer and she lost her leg. I was always the one who helped her remove her prosthetic leg whenever she was hurting and it never really bothered me. Chris said I’d been preparing for him my whole life,” said Yovandich, who describes her fiance as the most hard-working, determined and, sometimes, stubborn person she knows.
Last year, the couple moved to San Diego, a city that Van Etten fell in love with during his training and recuperation here. Next week, they’ll resettle in a Temecula apartment, where he plans to study business management through online classes at Palomar College. Their dream is to have a family and one day open a gym together in Temecula, where they may specialize in serving amputees like himself.
They chose Temecula because that is where they hope to have their home built next year by the charity Homes for Our Troops. Since 2004, the Massachussetts nonprofit has built 216 homes in 41 states for severely wounded post-9/11 combat veterans.
Homes for Our Troops builds specially adapted houses to meet the veterans’ needs, with wider doors and hallways, roll-under cabinetry and sinks, pull-down cabinets, flat entryways and ramps. The homes — built at a cost of$700,000 in private donations, corporate gifts and small federal grants — provide the veterans with financial security and reduce the physical frustrations that can trigger episodes of post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Homes’ marketing director Kristi Galanek.
“Our tagline is ‘building homes, rebuilding lives’ and the rebuilding part is the most important part of that mission,” she said. “We are about creating a home that’s an adapted calm and safe place. We’ve had more than 100 babies born in our homes since 2008 and we’ve had four of our vets in the Paralympics.”
Van Etten is among 45 veterans now approved and in the pipeline for a new home. Galanek said he’s a role model for how veterans with grave injuries can recover and lead fulfilling lives.
“Some people aren’t ready to talk about their injury, but he’s so confident and so comfortable,” she said. “He’s a very caring person who wants to help his comrades in arms and give back.”
Van Etten said the Jockey campaign is just the start of what he hopes will be a lifetime of motivating others to overcome challenges.
“I want to find people who are dealing with a disability, cancer, a bad breakup … anything traumatic and show them that you can feel better. For me it was a physical thing, where exercise turned my life around, but for everyone it’s an upward process and you have to keep pushing and not give up.”
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