An RPG took Josh Olson’s leg, but not sharpshooter’s spirit

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Eight days later, Olson opened his eyes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and panicked. Why were Jock and Shirley here? This is Iraq. This is a war zone. People are trying to kill you. This isn’t safe. You need to go home.

Besides, where was the gear he signed for? He didn’t want to pay for it.

The parents needed a day and a half to convince their son he wasn’t in Iraq, as he emerged from the induced coma and looked at them as if they were crazy. Between the fog of pain medication and machines hooked up to him, Olson wondered if he was hallucinating.

He looked at the empty spot on the hospital bed where his right leg should be. The leg felt like it was there and, man, did it hurt. Josh, the parents told him, your leg is gone.

“No, it’s not,” he said.

“No, no, no, it’s really gone.”

A 4:30 a.m. phone call sent the parents racing from Spokane, Wash., to Washington for passports, and then Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. They expected to plan a funeral. But Olson hung on, and the parents watched their unconscious son, soaked in perspiration, thrash on the gurney he was strapped to on a transport plane to Andrews Air Force Base. They believed he literally fought to live.

In the early days at Walter Reed, the parents didn’t snap pictures of Olson because Shirley Olson wasn’t certain he would survive. If he did, they planned to sell their four-level home and move somewhere handicapped accessible. The injury was unusual: U.S. military members suffered only 14 hip disarticulations in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and June 2007, according to a study in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Shirley Olson slept in her son’s room on a sofa converted to a bed and, more often than not, found herself on her knees praying. A program assistant at the Washington Academy of Arts and Technology that helps at-risk children, she drank coffee during her son’s surgeries and spoke in her kindly voice as a surrogate mother to soldiers at the hospital whose families weren’t there. At first, she cried good tears whenever she spoke to her son, but Jock Olson, a crew chief on KC-135 Stratotankers during three decades in the Air National Guard, urged her to stop because the tears made their son feel badly.

Olson felt helpless. Like a baby. He couldn’t go to the bathroom by himself and struggled to eat, sustained by Ensure and Mountain Dew. At night, he didn’t want to be alone.

In Ward 57 with other amputees, Olson realized he couldn’t carry a rucksack, kick in doors or run two miles in 13 minutes. Sleep often eluded him at 2 a.m. What’s next? Could he return to the Army, the career that seemed like destiny when he crawled around in tall grass covered in camouflage as a child, acting out movies like “The Longest Day” and “Platoon”? The Army was family, down to calling Stewart in Iraq three weeks after the ambush.

Stewart didn’t know if his friend was dead or alive. So, he pounded weights and prayed and hoped and pushed the gnawing question out of his mind so he wouldn’t jeopardize his squad. But he stopped worrying about himself. The question wouldn’t disappear. He wanted payback, to hurt the people who hurt his friend.

“I’m alive,” Olson said.

‘Can I stay in the Army?’

The first time Olson grabbed the bar above his bed and pulled himself up, he almost passed out. Thirty days passed since he arrived at Walter Reed. He shouted and screamed and wanted to hit the physical therapist.

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