When the rocket- propelled grenade exploded beneath the Humvee, Josh Olson had been crouched behind a tire for maybe 90 seconds, returning fire after his squad had been ambushed in the darkened streets of Tal Afar.
He was 24, a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He’d enlisted upon his graduation from Freeman High School in 1997– he’d have joined at age 6 if he could – and served in Kosovo and Korea before being part of the initial invasion in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was driven and disciplined – a professional soldier, instinctive leader, immediate friend.
The blast had thrown him clear of the vehicle and left him flat on his back, disoriented but conscious. His first thought was the safety of his squad and returning the fight, but he couldn’t pick himself up and he couldn’t feel anything where his right leg should have been.
That he didn’t bleed out in the 21/2 hours it took to get him to the hospital in Mosul was a testament to the poise and resourcefulness of Army medics. After that, the fight was Olson’s alone. He was airlifted first to Germany and then flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where his parents Jock and Shirley leveraged their considerable faith against the real possibility that their son wouldn’t make it.
More than 20 operations and endless rehab followed, the down moments often reviving the combat veteran’s ghosts of guilt and gratitude.
“There’s a feeling that you let people down,” Olson acknowledged. “But I was the only serious injury (from the ambush) and that’s the only way I would want it. I don’t know if I could have handled it if someone would have been caught or killed. That’s a heavy burden for anyone.”
So that’s the part which is always called a miracle: a badly wounded soldier’s survival.
But miracles have ripples.
Not quite nine years from that horrific night in Iraq, Josh Olson will lower himself onto his belly to fire 60 shots at a target 10 meters away on Saturday with a medal at stake in the 2012 Paralympics in London, a goal he either stumbled upon or manufactured or both.
He’s the first active-duty American soldier to compete in the Paralympics, in which he’s also entered in the 50-meter prone event.
“I think it’s incredible to still be able to serve,” Olson said. “All I ever wanted was to be a soldier. My dad, my grandfather, my uncle all served. It was kind of the family business. Halloween every year, I was always a soldier of some kind.
“I still am. If it’s not in combat but wearing the red, white and blue in competition, I can still pull a trigger.”
This was not a vision that simply came to Olson in his post-combat delirium and quickly morphed into opportunity.
Rehab was a long, painful struggle, sometimes made less so by fellow amputees who bonded as a family in much the same way his squad had.
“You start leaning on everybody,” Olson said, “and you laugh – you laugh at each other when you fall down, you joke about who’s worst at getting around. There’s a lot of ribbing, because it’s one of the things that keep you going.”
As problematic as rehab was finding a prosthetic he didn’t want to hurl through a window. Olson went through several before his work with a Florida company led to a breakthrough design that isn’t just functional, but comfortable and undetectable through his uniform.
And then came rehabilitating his sense of purpose.
Olson had an offer to work for U.S. Rep. Bill Young of Florida in an entry-level job, but his overwhelming desire was to remain as an active-duty soldier. That didn’t seem possible until a recreational supervisor at Walter Reed saw him hit 49 of 50 targets in a sporting clays shoot and recommended him to the Army’s Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga.
He became the first athlete with a disability nominated for the Army’s World Class Athlete program – a prototype, and a trailblazer.
Only recently, the Army has approved a new section for wounded active-duty soldiers that includes a team of 12 Paralympian shooters and 12 instructors.
“That’s 24 new jobs for guys to continue to serve instead of being moved out of the military,” he said. “It’s the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and it’s absolutely a great feeling to be on the ground floor something like this.
“I guess I was kind of the right guy at the right time.”
He said it without a hint of irony. His two-legged life is barely a memory to him now, but Josh Olson is undeniably whole.