Wounded in Iraq, Olson Has Plenty to Shoot For

Staff Sgt. Josh Olson, who lost his leg while serving in Iraq, is now headed to the Paralympic Games in Beijing to compete as a marksman. Video by Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Staff Sgt. Joshua J. Olson pulls on his heavy canvas shooting jacket and lowers his body to the floor, carefully arranging his prosthetic leg to steady himself for a round of rifle practice.

The 28-year-old Iraq war veteran will compete on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team in the 50-meter rifle prone event, the latest achievement in a shooting career that has led to a personal resurrection after he lost a leg and almost died in an ambush in Iraq.

On a night patrol in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar on Oct. 27, 2003, Olson and his infantry squad came under attack by insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades. The first grenade hit the back of the truck, wounding two soldiers. The second exploded near Olson, knocking the wind out of him, leaving his left leg limp and blasting his right thigh.

"I reached down and felt a big hole where my leg should be. That's when I kind of knew I was in a little bit of trouble," said Olson, of Spokane, Wash. Had he not been rescued so quickly, within 10 minutes, he said he likely would have bled to death.

Heavily medicated, he woke up a few days later and looked at himself in the mirror. "It sort of hit me. I was in a hospital full of amputees," he recalled, instantly realizing that his life aspiration to join the Army Special Forces or Rangers was an impossibility.

"It put a wrench in my plans," said Olson, who had wanted to serve in the military since he was a boy. Although deeply depressed, he gained solace in conversations with other veterans, at times telephoning them at 2 or 3 a.m. Gradually, he regained some hope that "my life isn't really over," he said.

In the fall of 2004, he joined an outdoors program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and one day impressed a physical therapist by hitting 48 of 50 clay targets in a shooting match. The therapist asked whether Olson, who had been an expert rifleman in the infantry, was interested in meeting with the Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga. "I jumped at the chance" to stay in the Army and keep working with soldiers, let alone travel the world with world-class shooters, he said.

Olson joined the Army Marksmanship Unit in June 2005 as an international rifle shooter, and has since placed eighth at the 2006 world championships, 12th at the 2007 European championships and fifth at the 2007 Oceania championships.

In the 50-meter rifle prone event, Olson fires 60 shots with a bolt-action gun at a target smaller than a dime. A match lasts 75 minutes, with each shot worth 10 points for a best possible score of 600. Last year, Olson was scoring in the low 580s, but now regularly scores 593 or 594. His goal is to reach the high 590s.

"You almost have to be an obsessive-compulsive person because you have to do the same thing right every time," Olson said. For example, he noted that many marksmen meticulously clean their rifles the same way each time, tightening the screws in the same order and so on.

Wearing blinders to block distractions, shooting glasses, and a thick jacket and pants aimed at slowing his heartbeat and steadying his aim, Olson said staying still and relaxed is vital but sometimes challenging as an amputee.

"In the middle of a match, my leg kicked out," he recalled, saying he must frequently adjust his prosthetic to get the right fit. "If I move at all it looks like an earthquake."

Olson hopes to attain his best performance yet in the Paralympics, saying to do that he must above all calibrate his thinking. Typically he begins preparing mentally two hours before each match, visualizing each shot in his head and planning what to do if the wind picks up or if he takes a couple of bad shots. "I will think positive thoughts, not like, 'You are an idiot,' " he said.

As an Iraq veteran, Olson says he still struggles with nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. "Its really easy to fall into a depression, you just sit in your room," he said. He also continues to mourn the loss of his leg. "Some days it is easy to get over and other days it is not," he said.

But as a soldier, Olson realizes that despite his injury, things could be worse. "On their second deployment [to Iraq] the guy who took my job in my squad was killed," he said. "That very well could have been me in that truck."

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