Hollie Callis always figured she would make a career in the military.
After joining the United States Army when she was 26 years old, Callis never doubted where she was meant to be. The daughter of two Army veterans who welcomed Callis into the world on Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Callis was destined in many ways to follow in their footsteps.
Callis, a Delaware resident, completed her basic training at Fort Jackson before heading to Fort Benning to begin Army Airborne School. Upon completion of jump school, Callis was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and was well on her way in her pursuit of a career in the Army.
“I loved the lifestyle and the structure,” Callis told The Gazette. “I hadn’t had that growing up, and it was something that I felt that I needed. And what I was doing was a positive thing. I was doing something I was told I couldn’t do, which I tend to do a lot. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it as hard as I can to prove you wrong. That’s the person I am.
“It’s a very close-knit family, and that’s what I needed and what I loved. That and getting to see and travel to new places, meeting new people, everything was so much fun. I wanted to make a life out of it and be able to retire. I wanted to do 20-plus years. I didn’t want to do 20 years and get out. I wanted to stay in as long as they would let me.”
However, as quickly as Callis could get established in what she expected to be her life for many years to come, that career came crashing down just months later.
Due to budget cuts in the military at the time, Callis and her fellow paratroopers were given new parachutes that she said were more budget-friendly as she understood the situation at the time. The performance of the parachutes didn’t hold up, however, and Callis paid a steep price during a practice jump.
“We jumped with the ‘chutes, and they didn’t deploy as fast as they should have, so a lot of us hit the ground a lot harder than we should have,” Callis said.
As a result of the rapid impact, Callis said she overly compressed her femur into her hip socket. After sustaining the injury, Callis’ time with the Airborne was abruptly ended, and she was forced to reclassify to doing IT work with the 184th Ordnance Battalion (EOD) in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Callis admitted she hates computers “with a passion,” but if it meant she would be able to stay in the military, it was a job worth pursuing.
“It was that or nothing, so you do what you have to do. And sometimes you just have to embrace the suck,” she said.
And despite the circumstances that led her there, Callis called her time with the EOD battalion “probably the best thing ever because they would blow stuff up all of the time.”
“Working with the EOD robots was a lot of fun,” she said. “I think it was 2011 when the position I was in was created because these robots were going downrange and they were being hacked by enemies and bringing the bombs back to our guys. So our job was created to help to make sure that our guys who were driving the robots were the only ones controlling it. It was a lot of fun getting to work with the EOD guys and see all that they do.”
But much like her time as a paratrooper, Callis’ time in IT would also end far sooner than she could have imagined as the condition of her left leg continued to worsen.
“I would be walking and I would just fall, and I wouldn’t be able to get up,” she recalled. “I would have to sit on the ground for 20 or 30 minutes before I would get feeling back in my leg. We were walking in formation and I fell, and we couldn’t get me to stand back up, so they sent me to the med board to find out what was going on.”
In time, as the femur head continued to grind against her pelvic cavity following the initial injury, the femur head eventually broke. Subsequently, the femoral nerve in her left leg became compressed between her femur, which caused periodic paralysis in her leg.
Callis was given the option of being medically discharged, voluntarily leaving, or being forced out of the military. “At that point, I was no longer deployable, so I was no longer needed in the military,” she said.
Callis left her military career behind for good in 2015, having served a little more than five years in the Army.
“What got to me the most was that I wanted to make a life out of (the military) because I loved doing what I did,” she said of leaving. “It was probably the best time of my life. Everybody always asks, ‘If you could go back and do it all over again, knowing what was going to happen, would you do it?’ My answer is most definitely. It was the structure I needed … It really makes you have to grow up as an individual, and it molds you into the person that you are.”
The transition back to civilian life, as is so often the case for soldiers, was already going to be difficult for Callis given the nature of her discharge. In particular, she said going from a life so structured to living day-to-day without any real structure at all was especially hard to adjust to.
“That was really hard for me to get a grip on … Every day is still kind of a struggle because you plan on things being a certain way and it’s just not. I still have my days now, six years later, where it’s still hard,” she said.
Events such as firework celebrations aren’t of interest to Callis these days, not because of what she had to go through as a soldier but what she was forced to miss out on as a result of her injury. “It’s too much of a sad memory and something that I miss,” she said.
As if the transition wasn’t already going to be challenging enough, it was made even more difficult as the blows to her health didn’t end with her military career.
While in the process of leaving her career hopes behind, Callis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, sending her into chemotherapy treatments to combat the disease. Upon returning home to Delaware to be closer to her family following the successful treatments, her injured leg finally gave out entirely.
“I was at my mom’s house in Delaware, walking, and I fell and was never able to get back up again,” she said.
The femoral nerve that had been compressed by her femur had become stressed to the point that it was severed during the fall, rendering the leg completely paralyzed. Callis has been mostly confined to a wheelchair since the fall.
“I have a brace that Veterans Affairs gave me that allows me to walk for a few hours a day,” she said. “It was actually given to me to help me walk down the aisle with my husband. They’re actually working on getting me an electronic brace that will bend with my leg and everything else. It’s actually really cool looking. It’s like an implant that they’ll put in and it will pick up signals when my knee should bend. It’s like a robot leg that attaches to my leg.”
In May, Callis received a donor nerve from a soldier who passed away, providing hope that she may one day regain some function in her leg. Slowly, she said she’s gotten ever so slight feeling back in the leg. For now, along with the brace, Callis also has an all-terrain wheelchair that allows her to enjoy things such as going riding along as her son and husband ride bikes.
Between the wheelchair and the brace, Callis can still be active in the community as well, something she said has been critical to her mental health. In addition to being heavily involved in her church and as the “team mom” to her son’s sports teams, Callis is also a member of the local AMVETS and Veterans of Foreign War chapters, as well as the Moose Lodge and the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Callis said she has to stay busy “to keep my sanity” because “it’s when you start slowing down that things come creeping back, and you don’t want that.” A mother to three children, one of which turned a year old this past weekend, also goes a long way in keeping her busy.
“Because I’m fully disabled and I’m not able to work, I do a lot in the community,” she said. “And I think that’s been my biggest baby with helping to keep my sanity. I do a lot through our church. It’s the glory of God that has given me all of that because I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own, and through the church I’ve learned that I don’t have to do it on my own. So I always try to pay everything forward.”
Callis continues to persevere in everything life throws at her, which has now included four victorious bouts with ovarian cancer. While her military career was taken from her far too early, Callis proves every day that she’s never really stopped being a soldier at all.
“I just keep proving that you can’t kill me,” she said. “God’s not done with me yet. That’s what I keep telling myself. He wants me here for something else, and I just haven’t figured out what it is yet … I’ve gone from a manmade army to Jesus’ army.”
On Sunday, Callis was one of six veterans to be chosen as honorees in the Delaware Veterans Parade and the first-ever female to be chosen for the parade. Callis said she questioned how worthy she was to be an honoree at first given that she never saw combat, but she felt it was important to give young girls watching the parade hope that they, too, can go wherever their dreams lead them.
Asked to reflect on what Veterans Day means to her, Callis said she looks at it as a day to honor anyone who has ever taken the oath to defend the country and has been willing to sacrifice everything to do so.
“Our first sergeant use to say, ‘Once a soldier, always a soldier,’” Callis said. “Being able to celebrate the fact that so many people have taken that oath and would still be willing to drop everything and pick up arms today if needed, that’s what I enjoy. I love celebrating the day with other veterans.
“It’s a day that all veterans can be honored for what they were willing to do and what they came home to. There are so many veterans who come home to not even knowing who they are when they look in the mirror, not knowing if they’re going to survive the next day. It’s a day to celebrate everyone who is still fighting their fights to this day.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.