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An RPG took Josh Olson’s leg, but not sharpshooter’s spirit
At 24 years old, Olson felt like king of the world, even though a trip to Ranger School didn’t materialize. He finished fourth in a tryout in Iraq where the top three qualified. Even wearing combat boots during the tryout when everyone else used running shoes didn’t slow him. This was everything he wanted since childhood in Spokane, Wash., when his parents, Jock and Shirley, searched his bag for G.I. Joes and toy guns before school, he bombarded sister Misty’s Barbie dollhouse with fake grenades, unloaded his allowance on Army surplus gear, filled his third-grade journal with doodles of tanks and guns, and, on birthdays, dressed as a soldier then marched around the block with his friends. The pint-sized soldiers slept outside without tents because, well, that’s what real soldiers did.
When one of “The Sisters” patrolled Tal Afar’s streets, the other waited up. They promised to deliver last letters to each other’s families if the worst happened.
“I’ll see you when you get back,” Stewart said earlier that night.
“Yeah, big sis,” Olson said.
Little things changed the otherwise routine patrol. That morning, a group of Iraqi men were caught watching the compound through binoculars, Spc. John Van Hook recalled. One had a bag of hand grenades. Spc. Thomas Lowry, ordered to do 30 push-ups when he joined Olson’s squad a year earlier, rode in the trail vehicle instead of his usual spot with the sergeant. Seconds before the ambush, Olson’s two Humvees were ordered front to provide fresh eyes.
On the streetcorner, Olson reminded himself to direct traffic for his two fire teams, as the rush of thoughts slowed, and he unloaded more rounds over the Humvee’s tire. Then a second RPG skipped off the pavement under the Humvee, exploded in the passenger’s side wheel well and spewed molten metal into his body. A bright flash filled the corner of his left eye.
The blast knocked Olson on his back and robbed his breath. He remembered the feeling from football at Freeman High School, when he delivered crack-back blocks as a wide receiver that burned him in coach John Custer’s mind as someone discomfort couldn’t touch. Walk it off, Olson thought.
He tried to roll over. Nothing. Stand up. Nothing.
Was he shot? Nothing hurt. Rest a minute. He needed to get back to the Humvee, get back in the fight. Then an inventory. Hands work? OK. Left leg? Blood. Oh, great.
Olson tried to pick up his right leg, but couldn’t grab anything. All he felt was a gooey, foreign mess.
As Olson crawled halfway back to his Humvee, Sgt. 1st Class Charlie Nye ran up from the trail vehicle, dodged gunfire and dragged him the rest of the way. The first thing out of Nye’s mouth was a profanity. Through the darkness, the platoon sergeant’s unsettled face fixed in Olson’s mind: What am I going to do?
Wow, I must be banged up, Olson thought.
Wedged in the passenger’s seat of a Humvee racing back the compound, Olson set his helmet behind his head, tucked his gloves into the side of his body armor, and leaned against the engine compartment. He felt on fire. The looks on other soldiers’ faces, really, his best friends, scared him. Would he be able to have a wife and kids? Was he wheelchair-bound, with Jock and Shirley forced to care for him the rest of his life? So, as his left leg dangled out the door, what remained of his right leg perched awkwardly across from him, and the soldiers yelled for him to stay awake, Olson prayed.
OK, God. If it’s my time, I’m ready. Just let mom and dad know there’s no pain. I’m fine. I’m taken care of.
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