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

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Salvation looked like shooting 50 sporting clays during an occupational therapy event. He hit 49 and felt natural with something he had never done. By the middle of 2005, the retirement paperwork reversed, he returned to active duty, and joined the Marksmanship Unit, a posting he long considered almost mythical, one of the Army’s best-kept secrets. Established in 1956, the Fort Benning-based group of about 120 soldiers shoots competitively around the world and trains soldiers on marksmanship. Olson was the first athlete with a disability nominated for the Army’s World Class Athlete program.

When the sergeant was 10 years old, Jock Olson made a deal with him at Spokane’s Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show. A booth offered 10 shots with an air rifle for a dollar. If the boy hit one bull’s-eye, he could get a Daisy BB gun. The 10th shot was perfect.

Finding a new leg

Olson’s prosthetic leg is the foundation of his shooting position. Truth be told, he doesn’t remember life with two legs. Some 32,227 members of the U.S. military were wounded in action in Iraq, according to the Pentagon, and Olson thinks he got off easy, that he’s not particularly special, well, aside from the “1LEGER” license plate.

On the wrinkled mat at Fort Benning’s Wagner Range, the prosthetic leg keeps him from tumbling over as he moves the rifle’s bolt with his right wrist, and the leg rotates his hips to the left so breaths come easier. Stan Patterson’s Orlando, Fla., firm, Prosthetics and Orthotics Associates, conjured up the leg’s vacuum hip system dubbed the “Olson design” that changed how hip disarticulation amputees move.

Previous models, such as the one Olson bled on at Fort Campbell, were rigid, bulky, poor-fitting and so uncomfortable that many hip disarticulation amputees, in Patterson’s view, had “basically given up” on using them. In 2004, Walter Reed sent Olson to Orlando to create something better with Patterson. Fourteen-hour days and half-dozen prototypes produced a low-profile model not visible through Olson’s uniform. A custom silicone liner wrapped around the hip and created an effect like a suction cup in a socket that was half the size of previous models. The fit is intimate and secure, preventing the socket movement that beset old versions.

Each year, Patterson fits 30 to 50 hip disarticulation amputees with the new system.

“I don’t think he realizes,” Patterson said, “the amount of people he touched with just the beginning of this device.”

Olson doesn’t feel disabled, doesn’t live disabled and jokes about the loss to show others he’s comfortable. Stewart has heard his friend complain twice, both about the temperature outside.

Each time Olson pulls the trigger, he wants to repeat the compulsive routine: heart rate, breathing, sights aligned, every stray thought pushed from his mind, total control of his body. Even if he fires a flawless 600, something remains to improve. Perfection is the goal. The range is open 24 hours each day, so if Olson can’t sleep, he rolls over in the red truck he operates the gas and brake on with his left foot, puts on headphones and triggers round after round downrange.

Paralympic shooting mirrors its Olympic counterpart, other than adding a prone air rifle competition and making accommodations for competitors who need a shooting stand. Bob Foth, USA Shooting’s Paralympic coach, sees beauty in the similarity to able-bodied competition because, ultimately, skill, not disability is tested. In Olson’s two events, he has 75 minutes to shoot 60 rounds at the target’s 10 concentric rings. A bull’s-eye earns 10 points. To compete in the 10-shot, 750-second final, he needs to shoot a near-perfect 598 or 599. That comes against targets, in the 10-meter air rifle, with a bull’s-eye the size of a keyboard period.

Olson tied with two others as the world’s top-ranked paralympic shooter in the 50-meter rifle in 2011, narrowly missed qualifying for Beijing’s Paralympics, and, since he competes in able-bodied contests, wants to shoot in the Olympics. He feels lucky to be here, still in the Army, shooting for a living, but settles for training soldiers bound for Afghanistan, instead of fulfilling his wish to serve there.

Three or four times each year, when his loaded schedule of international shooting matches and marksmanship instruction allows, he visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, and tells wounded soldiers wearing looks of “What’s next?” that linger in his mind, their lives aren’t over.

If depression creeps in, Olson gets upset.

“What do you have to be sorry about?” he said. “Life’s not that bad.”

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