An RPG took Josh Olson’s leg, but not sharpshooter’s spirit
FORT BENNING, Ga. — Black flies hummed around stall 58 at Wagner Range. Fort Benning’s pine trees shimmered in the distance as the late-morning temperature pushed 95 degrees with the promise of more from the Georgia summer.
Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson lay on a wrinkled mat, custom Anschutz rifle pulled against his right cheek, and his easy smile vanished. Spent .22 shells glittered on a red blanket. A few feet away, his $50,000 right leg with the microprocessor-controlled knee steadied his aim. The rifle stared down a target a little smaller than a dime 50 meters away.
Eighteen months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, over 25 surgeries, more than a dozen versions of a prosthetic right leg leading to a design that bears his name, and one successful 10-day tryout for the Army's Marksmanship Unit landed him on the mat as the first active-duty U.S. soldier to compete in the Paralympics.
He flicked the bolt to chamber another round, froze 15 seconds, inhaled deeply, then took four short breaths.
Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson takes a break between shots at Fort ... more >
Two minutes each day, Olson pictures himself on the range at London’s Royal Artillery Barracks for the Paralympics, which begin next Wednesday. By the time he triggers his first rounds in the mixed 50-meter rifle, and 10-meter air rifle, he figures he’ll have been there more than 150 times.
The words of his first squad leader at Fort Campbell in Kentucky more than a decade ago are close by, words that followed him down a dark street in Iraq when everything changed: “If I ever catch you quitting on me, I’ll kill you myself.”
On a late-October night almost nine years ago, four Humvees crawled along a road between a row of houses and a school surrounded by a high wall. Lights normally on in downtown Tal Afar, a dust-colored city of 200,000 in northwestern Iraq, turned off. The night was unusually warm and, in hindsight, quiet.
As the lead Humvee turned right at the school, the first rocket-propelled grenade slammed into its tailgate. The RPG ricocheted straight up without detonating, leaving the tailgate looking like someone attacked it with a sledgehammer, and Olson’s squad in the middle of an L-shaped ambush.
Gunfire swept the corner from trees in a wadi near the road. Olson’s mind raced. Had they hit a mine or an improvised explosive device? Muscle memory took control. Before he realized what happened, he was kneeling beside a tire and emptied a magazine and a half from his M4 carbine. Tal Afar’s small IEDs and pop-a-shot RPGs and hand grenades in previous months seemed tame compared to this.
Just a few minutes away, close enough to hear the first RPG, sat the abandoned Baath Party headquarters and old police station that Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division called home. An Iraqi man served chicken and rice each day from a stand in the compound. To pass time, Olson and Staff Sgt. Matt Stewart improvised a water-balloon launcher with surgical tubing normally used for tourniquets, and lobbed balloons from the roof of the three-story building at children across the street.
Every day the sergeants, dubbed “The Sisters” by the company because patrols were the only thing that seemed to separate them since meeting 21/2 months earlier, blitzed the outdoor gym between laughs for an hour and a half: chest, triceps, situps, back, thighs. Capt. Rodney Dycus, the good-natured battalion physician assistant, usually joined them. Olson didn’t seem to know a stranger.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.