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

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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.

Crack.

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.

Crack.

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.”

Crack.

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.

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.

A cool, calm breeze washed over him.

Tires smoking, the lone Humvee tore into the compound. Bravo’s commander, Capt. Michael Jones, heard the screams for a medic over the engine as he worked the radio to direct reinforcements to the ambush. This must be bad. Olson stood out as one of his top two squad leaders, with a reputation for listening to both sides of a story and a personality that drew other soldiers like a magnet. The front seat of the Humvee looked to Jones as if someone gutted a pig there. Van Hook, a former member of Olson’s squad, couldn’t believe the amount of blood when he cleaned the Humvee the next morning.

In the tiny battalion aid station, not much bigger than its three litters, Dycus marveled that Olson was alive. The remnants of his right leg hung across his body like a doll’s snapped limb, plus a collapsed left lung and chunk out of his left leg amid a sea of shrapnel. Training didn’t cover how to handle an extremity wound this high. A compress didn’t staunch the flow of blood. Nothing remained to bind with a tourniquet. So, Dycus scrambled to tie off the severed femoral artery with a suture.

Pain attacked Olson as the medics cut off his uniform. His stomach felt turned inside out and twisted in a knot. As Dycus wrestled the artery, unable to slow the bleeding, a scene from “Black Hawk Down” where a Ranger with a leg wound bled out in Mogadishu, Somalia, pounded through Olson’s mind. He begged for something to dull the pain but had lost too much blood. Out of desperation, Dycus inflated a pair of military anti-shock trousers, a pneumatic device that balloons to cut off blood supply below the waist.

Blood seemed everywhere when Stewart entered the aid station. One look at the medics’ faces told him Olson, calm after learning his genitals were intact, wouldn’t survive.

“Does it hurt?” Stewart said.

“What do you think?” Olson said.

Stewart fought to keep composure, even as his buddy crowed about the deal he’d get on a prosthetic leg since his brother-in-law was a prosthetist in Iowa. The medics couldn’t believe he was cracking jokes.

“You know what to do,” Olson said.

“Yeah,” Stewart said, and pulled the letter from Olson’s pocket he never wanted his family to read.

Before Olson was hauled to an unsecured soccer field for the half-hour medevac helicopter flight to the 21st Combat Support Hospital in Mosul, Stewart delivered his final goodbye.

“I’ll marry your sister,” he said, continuing a long-running joke, “just so you know.”

“The [expletive] you are,” Olson said, and grinned.

In the minutes before sedation grabbed hold in Mosul, Olson tried to help the doctors and repeatedly apologized for being hurt.

Disoriented at Walter Reed

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.

“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.

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.”

Ability not disability

Almost nine years later, some soldiers fight tears as they recall the bright flash in Tal Afar that transformed Olson. Such is the affection they retain for the soldier they joke is lucky he didn’t lose his trigger finger.

“Some people succumb to their injuries and let their injuries and their wounds become who they are,” said Jones, who left the Army, and runs “Not Alone,” a non-profit aiding soldiers and families struggling with PTSD. “Some people thrive off them.”

Prompted by Olson’s success, the Marksmanship Unit plans to add 24 wounded soldiers as instructors and competitive marksmen in October.

“The most remarkable part isn’t that he survived that day,” Dycus, the physician assistant, now stationed in Germany, wrote in an email. “Instead, it is what he has done with himself every day since.”

So, the boy who dreamed of being a soldier, and the sergeant who thought the dream was finished as he lay in a hospital bed, now has his face staring down a rifle on an Army recruiting poster.

“SFC Olson,” the poster reads, “exhibits ability rather than disability.”

He’s home.

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