Soldier who lost leg blazes 'legendary trail' as competitive marksman
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 10, 2012
Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson lost his right leg in Iraq, but not his fight.
Since recovering from the potentially career-ending war wound nine years ago, Olson has thrived as a shooting instructor and competitive marksman.
This year, he became the first active-duty, combat-wounded soldier nominated for the U.S. Paralympic Team and will become the first to compete in a Paralympic games, which begin in late August in London.
The 32-year-old has placed in about 20 international marksmanship competitions in recent years, winning gold at the French Grand Prix and the Alicante Cup in Spain in 2009.
Most importantly, Olson has shown that wounded soldiers can continue to serve.
Thanks in part to his success as a competitive rifle shooter and instructor for the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, the Army is creating two new sections for 24 wounded soldiers known as the Marksmanship Instructor Group and Paralympic Section.
It will be the first active-duty Army section open exclusively to severely wounded troops who might have otherwise been forced to separate from the military.
The Army Marksmanship Unit, made up of 147 soldiers and a civilian contingent, are the best marksmen and instructors in the world, according to Lt. Col. Daniel Hodne, the unit commander.
The unit trains several thousand soldiers per year, including NATO and Afghan forces, and keeps a steady downrange presence.
Its soldiers also shoot in competitions at home and abroad, and members of the USAMU have won hundreds of individual and team national titles, more than 40 World Championships, and 23 Olympic medals, according to their website.
“In the past, the Army would have lost all the knowledge and firsthand experience of its wounded warriors,” Olson said last month from the Czech Republic, where he was competing. “Now the Army can use that experience to train others before they go out into harm’s way.”
“My greatest accomplishment is I helped pave the way for 24 wounded soldiers to continue to serve after injury.”
Headfirst into Iraq
Olson grew up in a military family in Spokane, Wash. His most treasured childhood memories are dressing up in fatigues and running around with toy guns, he said.
“I think serving your country is the greatest honor someone could have,” Olson said. “Wearing the flag on your shoulder and showing the world what America is all about is something to be proud of.”
After enlisting in late 1997, Olson completed basic training and infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., and was soon assigned to 1st Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He would later deploy to Kosovo and serve as a scout platoon squad leader, patrolling the Joint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea.
In 2003, Olson was a member of the coalition of forces that invaded Iraq.
After about 45 days in Baghdad, his unit traveled north to Tal Afar, he said. During a patrol on Oct. 27, 2003, Olson was in the lead vehicle in a line of four when a rocket-propelled grenade detonated, injuring two soldiers in the back of his vehicle. Insurgents opened up on them with automatic weapons.
Olson and the patrol returned fire, killing some of the insurgents who did not immediately flee. About 90 seconds later, a second rocket struck his vehicle, and Olson bore the brunt of the blast.
He was taken to the battalion aid station, then to a hospital in Mosul, then to Germany and finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he arrived in a medically induced coma, he said. When he woke, he thought he was still in Iraq.
“It didn’t really sink in that I had lost my leg for a few days after,” he said.
Blazing a ‘legendary trail’
Despite having his share of bad days during rehabilitation, Olson persisted.
He served as a test subject for doctors and researchers to advance the sockets of lower limb prosthetics — the design he helped create was even dubbed the “Olson Design” in his honor.
After rounds of clay shooting as part of his occupational therapy, Olson heard about a markmanship unit from the outdoor rehabilitation coordinator.
Invited to try out, he passed the audition for the unit, and eight months later found himself again at Fort Benning. By 2006, just three years after his injury, he became the first athlete with a physical disability to be nominated to the Army’s World Class Athlete program.
“I was treated just like anyone else and that’s the way I wanted it,” Olson said. “As far as my accomplishments go, I share them with my coach and teammates.”
Hodne said that Olson is “an inspirational leader” and that he has “blazed a legendary trail for our Army.”
The idea for an Army section made up of only wounded warriors was first floated three years ago, but never made it out of headquarters, Hodne said.
But when the former Special Forces commander arrived from the Pentagon in May 2009, he found himself pressed with a unique problem: an increase in demand for marksmanship trainers.
“We’re getting more requests for training than we can fill,” he said. “So we wanted to do it in an innovative way.”
An Iraq war veteran, Hodne said he had witnessed wounded veterans’ determination in recovery and their drive to return to service. He had seen Special Forces soldiers return to active duty after losing limbs.
He needed only look at Olson to know it could be done, so he rewrote the proposal in language he knew would garner consideration, leaning on his experience in Washington.
“This is the first unit ever to be created for these soldiers in this capacity,” Hodne said. “It’s trailblazing in this approach.”
This is not a unit for soldiers in transition. These physically wounded soldiers have been deemed fit to return to active-duty by a medical board, Hodne said.
It can take years to mold a soldier into a world-class marksman. All members of the unit serve as instructors. Some will compete internationally.
“It’s not going to be easy [for these wounded soldiers],” Hodne said. “This is not a shooting club.”
‘A new chapter’
“This section is important for wounded warriors because it gives them an opportunity to still serve and still have a career in the military if they choose,” Olson said. “Before, there was nothing like this in place. Being severely injured [usually] meant separation.”
Recruitment of the new wounded soldiers has already begun, Hodne said, but they won’t officially join the unit until the beginning of the next fiscal year.
Hodne will not be around to see the new sections. He is scheduled to be relieved June 20, and will be stationed at the U.S. Army War College, he said.
“I’m grateful to our Army for approving this so wounded soldiers can continue to serve,” Hodne said. “I believe that through this program, the best, brightest and most successful days for this unit lie ahead. I’m happy to have been a small part in making it happen.”
For soldiers like Olson, it’s a chance to continue serving.
“I’m proud to be an NCO and to be at the ground level of these new sections,” he said. “I hope to mentor and coach the new soldiers coming to the unit to be successful twice as fast as myself.”
Olson, who lives in Alabama, said that he is never alone on the firing line, as he competes for the fallen and those that are still in harm’s way all over the world. He plans to serve as an Army instructor and competitive shooter until he retires. He looks forward to showcasing his skills in London.
“My injury wasn’t the end of my career but the beginning of a new chapter,” he said. “People will have to overcome obstacles in their time in the military. When they see a door closing they see another that opens. For me, continuing my military service is an honor. I am one of the lucky people who get to live their dreams. Mine was always to be a soldier.”