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

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“I don’t care how much you yell and cuss at me,” the man said, “but I need you to sit up.”

Olson dropped from 200 pounds and the cusp of Ranger School — 61 days advertised as the Army’s most physically and mentally demanding course — to 127 pounds struggling to heft pink 5-pound weights. When Misty Snyder arrived in the first week of December, she thought her brother looked like a dying cancer patient. But the smile consuming his face remained, and so did instinctively offering to get a chair for a guest, though he couldn’t even get out of bed. That’s how Jock and Shirley Olson raised their four children: God first, others second, yourself last.

That smile broadened when President George W. Bush posed for a photograph in Olson’s room Dec. 18, 2003, after pinning the Purple Heart on his black shirt. A pair of crutches rested in the corner.

“If I can do the job, can I stay in the Army?” Olson asked.

“Well sure, son, you can,” President Bush said.

At first, Olson couldn’t stand to look at the mirror above the sink in his room. The reflection appeared 10 years old, nothing like the veteran of Iraq, Kosovo and South Korea. When he put on the first prosthetic leg, with a top that resembled sliced up plastic milk jugs attached to a belt cutting into the bottom of his rib cage, and looked in another mirror, reality smacked him in the face. The loss finally seemed real. He had to rely on this metal and plastic contraption. This wouldn’t disappear. This was life.

He noticed soldiers missing two, three limbs. Others suffered brain damage. Their plight mattered more to him than his injury. The RPG’s blast could have done worse. Let’s go, he thought.

Less than three months after losing his leg, Olson stood at Fort Campbell on Jan. 4, 2004, as his unit returned from Iraq, fulfilling the vow that carried him hell-bent through the first steps of rehabilitation. But a bureaucratic snafu started the process to medically retire him from the Army, a seven-month period that took the intervention of senior Pentagon officials to overturn. Little sparked Olson more than being told he couldn’t do something. Blood seeped from the prosthetic that didn’t fit right because of abnormal bone growth, and rubbed his stump raw. The belt broke ribs in some hip disarticulation amputees. The more Olson moved, the more the discomfort grew. That didn’t matter.

The first person Stewart met after stepping off the plane was his joke-cracking buddy with the familiar grin, and, at once, Stewart felt as if a freight train lifted off his back. Peace returned.

He still carried Olson’s bloodstained letter to his family.

Salvation through shooting

As Olson learned to walk with his prosthetic leg, he fell. That’s normal. The tumbles pushed Shirley Olson, who believed she witnessed miracle after miracle as her son recovered, back to the life in Spokane she paused 31/2 months earlier. The falls broke her. A nurse whispered leaving was OK.

Later that year, Shirley Olson plunged into a severe clinical depression, and a psychologist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Twice-weekly counseling sessions left her “A-OK” by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Young, Florida Republican, and his wife, Beverly Angello, had latched on to Olson during regular visits to Walter Reed. Young regarded him as a “superhero,” impressed by his curiosity, unabashed love for the Army and, above all, determination that the amputation wouldn’t slow his life. The Congressman offered him an entry-level job.

Knocked down once on the Tal Afar street, Olson wanted to get back up. More remained to contribute to the Army.

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