A Warrior’s Gift
Marine War Veteran Corporal Chris Van Etten Survives a Tragic Situation In Afghanistan and Now Serves As An Inspiration for Everyone Who Feels Less-Than
by Dann Dulin
Photographed exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
This story about Chris Van Etten, the Jockey model for the “Show ’Em What’s Underneath” campaign, almost didn’t happen.
Our interview had been set for nearly two months. I intended to drive to see Chris at his new home in Temecula, California, having recently moved there from San Diego. He had intended to drive to me in Los Angeles—about a two-hour jaunt. Fortunately, on the day of our meeting, I awoke to find an email from the veteran.
Chris apologized that he had to cancel. “My prosthetic keeps giving me issues,” he explained. “Details are a little personal but it’s come to the point where I’m not able to keep it on for very long.” And he ended the email with “…but I can’t comfortably make it up there.” What?! I didn’t quite understand at first. Then I realized that he was planning on driving up to L.A.!
Had Chris’s leg not been bothering him, both of us would have been passing one another on the I-15 freeway, ending up at each other’s place, knocking on the door, and getting no answer! Fate interceded.
Living in a large apartment complex not far from the highway, I’m greeted by a “Hello” welcome mat at the front door. A petite lone Eucalyptus crenulata tree stands to the side of the entrance, and just beyond, cars whiz by on the freeway. Samantha, his fiancé, opens the eight-paneled wooden door and Chris is close at hand. We settle into the cozy living room, while the series The Office is frozen on their television, which they were viewing on Netflix prior to my arrival. Directly beside him, lying on the sandalwood-colored leather sofa is Harley, his military dog who served with him in Afghanistan.
The twenty-six year old Illinois native comes from a military family. His mother and father, who met in the Air Force, are both retired. At eighteen, Van Etten (pronounced ET-ten, with accent on first syllable) enlisted in July 2009. He took the standard medical exams and submitted a blood specimen. This was the first time he was tested for HIV. He wasn’t worried because “wearing protection was always a prerequisite.” Though Chris is in a committed relationship, he still gets tested yearly.
After passing the exam, Chris was sent off to boot camp and then assigned to 1st Battalion 7th Marines Charlie Company, better known as “Suicide Charley.” Deployed to Afghanistan in June 2012, he was conducting dismounted patrol with his unit one night when his squad-mate and best friend stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). Chris and his buddies rushed to his aid. As they were lifting his body, Chris stepped on another IED. He lost both legs. His friend died.
“TJ [Baune] was an exemplar to all of us,” he says. “Hands down one of the best people and Marines that I’ve ever met.” Chris’s already low register deepens and there’s a hint of moisture in his eyes.
What got me through, and I know it sounds corny, but every day I told myself that it will get better. Every day I would look at myself in the mirror, force myself to smile and tell myself in the mirror that it was going to get better.
Chris spent a year in intensive rehabilitation, though he was walking with prosthetics within a couple of months. It was demanding and stressful, but he learned how to walk again. It was a greater challenge to overcome the mental anguish. Battered by depression, insomnia, and anxiety, Chris also had to wean himself off painkillers.
Van Etten was saved by the gym.
“I had low points during rehab, but when I got out, that’s when I really hit my lowest, trying to figure out, ‘What now?!’” It took time. What got him through this period were his workouts. It was therapy and the gym that became his friends. Reentering civilian life he concluded, “It would be pitiful of me to try and sit here and pretend like my life sucks when there’s people out there that are missing more limbs; people out there who don’t have a husband or a son or a brother.”
Pressing further, Chris reveals, “What got me through, and I know it sounds corny, but every day I told myself that it will get better. Every day I would look at myself in the mirror, force myself to smile and tell myself in the mirror that it was going to get better. Whether you believe it or not, telling yourself supports that thought,” he urges, boasting, “and it did get better.” His success can be boiled down to plain ol’ grit and willpower. Chris refused to be a victim.
Nestled back into the sofa, Chris wears his favorite get-up, T-shirt and shorts. His black shirt sports a logo “Straight Legless Clothing” and his shorts are khaki. He takes off his prosthetic and explains where it rubs into his leg. He leaves it off for the duration of our talk. Chris is affable, straightforward, and genuine, and looks like he just walked in after cutting wood for the fire.
As he speaks, I gaze at Chris—and swoon. Not for the obvious reason, that Chris Van Etten has striking looks and a gripping presence, but due to his daunting courage, old-soul wisdom, life-changing inspiration, and unyielding drive to care for others. The soldier has a unique combination of George Bailey vulnerability with Matthew Bourne strength.
Van Etten’s charitable work began in high school, when he participated in an AIDS Walk. He’s currently active with the Semper Fi Fund (an all-around support organization for Vets and their families), Joshua Chamberlain Society (a long-term multifaceted support grassroots charity for veterans), and Homes For Our Troops (privately funded nonprofit that builds mortgage-free homes for Vets). “These three organizations have gone way out of their way to help me,” he attests in a somber manner, “and I try to go out of my way to help them give back a little of what they gave me.”
Chris initially learned about the AIDS epidemic in middle school. He was in seventh grade health class. The school arranged to have an HIV-positive speaker come in and talk to the students. “He talked about what HIV does to your body and all the pills you have to take to keep yourself from dying,” clarifies Chris, in his measured cadence diction. “It made such an impact on me by seeing firsthand a person who had the disease.”
Samantha takes note and in a disappointed tone, says, “I never had a keynote speaker.” (She nods towards Chris to make sure she’s not interrupting. Chris replies, “No, it’s fine.”) She quickly whisks her long blonde tresses away from her face. “I think when you have someone who is living this disease, people listen more and respond more. That would have made a huge difference in my school and community.”
“Hands down, listening to him really made a huge impression on me about the epidemic,” agrees Chris unwavering. “He made me understand that this is the risk one takes by not having protected sex. This got through to me much more than watching it on PowerPoint or by a teacher’s slideshow. This man was a living example of the disease,” he says. “That’s powerful.”
Samantha, his fiancé, affirms. “You see that this person is just a human being. It’s not like, you get AIDS and you become a monster. You’re still a person and you’re living your life.” She peers over at Chris. “After all these years you remember this speaker?” They both snicker in agreement since Chris usually has a “horrible memory.” Sam playfully scoffs, “You don’t remember anything!” Chris concurs, “I can’t tell you what my teachers looked like, but I can describe that guy.”
When Chris became sexually active, he remembered the speaker back in middle school and took precautions. “AIDS is not something you should live in fear of, but it’s something people should take into consideration whenever they’re having sex,” he says. Even after a cure is found, protection is still going to matter, due to pregnancy and STDs. Is one night with someone that you don’t want to spend the rest of your life with worth a lifetime of battling an illness? Sex should be taken seriously.”
We discuss the high infection rates of his generation. “Sex should not be made out to be this scary monster,” the lacrosse player, marathoner, and skier insists. “That puts high schoolers off. These kids should be informed about STDs and taught how to protect themselves. People will be more receptive to this than to abstain from sex.” In November 2016, Time magazine reported that STDs reached record highs, as reported by federal data: “Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis all rose from 2014 to 2015, for a second year in a row.”
Harley pushes her hind paws into Chris’s thighs. She seems to be dreaming. The yellow Labrador and golden retriever mix does not leave his side during our time together.
Chris goes on. “I remember when I was younger, there was such stigma surrounding the epidemic. Even while I was still in my negative youthful head, I realized that judging people was not the way to go,” he says cocksure. “But attitudes have changed. It’s really nice to see how accepting people have become in the last decade. We’re all different but we…are…all… human.”
“It’s human nature to fear what we don’t know,” Chris says. “You don’t have to understand how somebody else lives, unless the way they live is physically harming you. You don’t have to put your nose in other people’s business. Let people live the life they want to live!”
Sam jumps in, “I feel like in our [Millennial] generation we were taught about HIV and then we moved on. It was explained as an STD and that was all.” Chris reflects, “It was taught with empathy. In the beginning, AIDS was made to look more like a monster where as now it’s made to look more like an obstacle where we need to help people overcome it.”
Chris believes that social media has helped alleviate some of the stigma through greater awareness about alternative lifestyles, and by dissemination of rapid information about the epidemic and other STDs.
Van Etten has also encountered social stigma. He tends to center more on the positive aspects of his life. “When I realize people are talking about me I hope it’s more curiosity than anything else. I tell everyone, ‘Don’t be afraid to come up and ask me.’ That’s the only way a person is going to learn,” he says. “When they do, I try and show them that it’s not something I’m uncomfortable with. One way to get rid of a stigma is to get educated.”
Chris likes to refer to himself as “handi-capable.”
“When people look at me, I want them to always think of something inspiring and positive. I don’t want them to think, ‘Here’s this guy who went through all that and he’s let the anger and misery take over.’”
Chris has done a lot of soul searching over the last few years. “I was an angry person when I was growing up,” he offers. “I wasn’t the type of person who would lash out. I just stop caring. I’d shut down. After I was injured, I realized how delicate life was and I almost left this world being an angry person. I didn’t want that to happen.” He props his leg up on the prosthetic, resting it atop. “I don’t think my life would have taken this direction had it not been for the fact that I was injured. In a weird way…it was a gift.” This writer has heard this all too often of people who have been infected with HIV.
Chris acquired his insight and courage from his parents, especially his mother. “My parents are the big reason why I am who I am,” he expresses wholeheartedly, petting Harley.
Chris’s mother had Stage Three breast cancer when he was in high school. It was aggressive, but localized, and the doctors caught it before it could spread. The chemo treatments ate away at her body. “It was miserable,” he recounts, “but she came out of it a stronger person. I could tell that she had a new found view on life. She was always an amazing person, but after that, she was really this absolutely amazing positive person. Starting a conversation with someone, she could make that person be her best friend in five minutes.”
Chris had a role model to help him through his tumultuous times after the injury. Indeed, his mother pitched in and aided him all through his rehabilitation. She relocated to San Diego, leaving Chris’s father and his two brothers, Clint and Cameron, who were both in school back in Illinois. “My brothers were fairly young. They were entering a significant time in their lives when she chose to come out…,” he points out in a humble timbre.
His mother was very much a part of his recovery. “Going through what I did, I tried to use her constant drive too,” interjects Chris, Sam shaking her head in accord. “My dad is a tough guy and he can intimidate others, but hands down he’s one of my best friends.”
Chris and his mom are currently writing a book. Sam is eager to reveal the premise. “It’s a cool concept. It’s about what he’s going through and what she’s going through at the same time.” Chris sums up, “One chapter is my story on a certain subject and the next chapter will be about her experience.” I ask about the title, but he doesn’t want to jinx the book by revealing too much.
Harley snuggles closer to Chris, laying her head on his leg. Observing the interaction between Chris and Harley, one can easily see their titanic bond. Later, when asked to name his favorite moment of all time, he answers, “When I got Harley back.” And that was not a simple task.
“It’s not easy to acquire the dog you served with in the military,” according to Vietnam Vet, Ed Reeves, who recently published his captivating story about this subject, My Search for my Vietnam Scout Dog Prince. It usually takes a year and a half of red tape to get the dog you served with, but in Chris’s case, it took five months to get Harley, due in part to Van Etten’s family friends. Ed Reeves was not that fortunate. Harley is Chris’s pride and joy.
Samantha, of course, is another form of bliss. In 2014, Chris and Sam met in his hometown’s Gold’s Gym following Chris’s rehab. (At one point, I ask Chris to show me pictures of his family. When I look at his mother, interestingly enough, I find that there’s a definite similarity in looks between Sam and Chris’s mom.) Sam is a trainer and noticed Chris first. She spotted him doing pull-ups then asked a friend who worked at the desk who this guy was. The friend said, “Oh, that’s Chris Van Etten, I went to high school with him.” Samantha commented to her, “He’s going to be my boyfriend one day.” In a few months, sure enough! Sam messaged Chris first saying, “I think we should hang out.” They did, and the couple tied the knot on April Fool’s Day 2017, in Oceanside, California.
They are currently having a house built through Homes For Our Troops. The property will not just be wheelchair-accessible, it’s a home designed for a wheelchair. “It’s exciting,” gushes Chris with relish. The house should be ready later this year.
Their passion is to open a gym, which will offer programs for those who are overcoming a physical injury or disability, whether it’s those who have had major surgery or paraplegics or amputees. They can get back into the gym and workout safely with trained instructors. The first one will open in Temecula. “It’s not so much about building a business, but a good gym that people are happy with. We have the whole design concept but not the name yet,” remarks Chris. Do I hear Inner Power Gym or The Warrior’s Gym? Van Etten currently attends college, taking business classes online.
I like public speaking and it’s a great way to share my story. I learned that with my injury, and what happened to me, that I would like to inspire others to be appreciative of their life.
Chris is also passionate about motivational speaking, for which Jockey has afforded him a platform. On the 4th of July last year, promoting the Jockey campaign, he appeared on Today’s “Kathie Lee and Hoda,” then city-by-city appeared on their local news or morning show. Chris plans on continuing speaking around the country once he receives his business degree.
“I’m much better speaking to a group of people than I am one-on-one,” he confesses modestly. Early on, his nervousness was marginally noticeable, but otherwise the Marine is cool, calm, and collected. His demeanor is disarming and engaging. “I like public speaking and it’s a great way to share my story. I learned that with my injury, and what happened to me, that I would like to inspire others to be appreciative of their life.” Having a rich smooth voice, when this charismatic Vet speaks, one listens.
Chris knows there will be more Vets who will go through similar ordeals. “They will get out of the service and say, ‘What now?!’ I always tell them to find something that they can dive into, something to put all their passion into and all their concentration into so they’re not sitting around letting their [negative] thoughts get the better of them. They’re working toward…something.” He changes position and leans in. “I direct this to anyone who is faced with powerful challenges, such as HIV…,” he blurts with gusto, repeating that working out was his focus, which saved his life.
From the gym, Chris springboarded into modeling. A woman saw him one day while he was working out and was so inspired that she posted it to her Facebook page, “I was so awed by this amputee working out at the gym today….” Chris saw it, which generated the idea for him of a better way to reach people—through ads. In 2013 he posed for some “small-time” gigs. It was a friend who told Chris that Jockey was looking for models.
“I liked what they were trying to get across. Their message is about showing strength and perseverance through all odds,” Chris specifies, his face austere. “The main idea of the campaign is there’s a part of everyone that the public doesn’t see, and to show what’s underneath, what’s great about you. I wanted to help promote that idea. Everyday people doing not so everyday things, trying to better the world in one way or another.”
Jockey liked Chris’s story, too. They asked if he would be interested in joining the campaign. He told them, “Hell, yes! I’d love to a part of this. It’s awesome.” He pauses, tousles his hair, and parts his Mick Jagger lips into a tender smile. “It’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride—and I’ve loved every second of it!” he rhapsodizes. “So many people have been responsive in a positive light and everybody I’ve spoken with has been motivated by the message.” The campaign was launched June 2016.
Chris is currently featured in celebrated photographer Michael Stokes’ extraordinary high-powered trendsetting coffee table book, Always Loyal (published 2015). The book showcases wounded war vets in nearly naked glory in intimate poses, celebrating their lost limbs. (The photographer donated $10,000 from the sale of his book to the Semper Fi Fund.) Stokes was the first person Chris ever shot with, back in 2013.
Chris cares about others and he cares about this country. His whole family celebrates freedom. The day before I met them, Chris and Sam drove to San Diego to send off his nineteen-year-old brother, Cameron, to boot camp.
Queried about being a humanitarian, Chris responds. “It should be everyone’s responsibility to try and better this world. Society is so sucked up on the negatives that we tend to overlook the positives. It should be everyone’s goal to help each other. Do something everyday that gives back, no matter how big or small it is.”
This may sound a bit “Oprah,” but Chris is steadfast. He rises, excusing himself. Samantha and I look over toward Harley. He chomps on a Chewbacca stuffed toy. She says, “Oh, you’ll think this is cool.” She comes over to Harley, lifts up her ear, and displays Harley’s Marine Corp serial number that’s tattooed on her ear. “Everything in the military is numbered, and that’s Harley’s,” Sam explains with a soft, jolly lilt.
Chris returns. He carries a large unwrapped package. It’s the Always Loyal book, which he bestows upon me as a gift. Van Etten sits back down, looks off momentarily, and gently sighs, “Unfortunately, many of my buddies have died, just like many people have died from AIDS and other tragic illnesses. We’re all going to go some…time. Not all of us can be lucky enough to live a full life,” utters Chris, anchored in gratitude, “but as long as I’m here, I’m going to celebrate every day of my life.” His baby blues sparkle.
Dann Dulin interviewed singer/songwriter Siedah Garrett for the February cover story.