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Military inStep - A Publication of the Amputee Coalition in Partnership with the U.S. Army Amputee Patient Care Program. 2005.
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On October 28, 2003, Staff Sergeant Josh Olson began a journey he shares with over 300 Service members who have sustained major limb amputations during OIF/OEF. Each service member’s story is unique because, while they all share their military training, they also bring their personality, beliefs, family and a rehabilitation course that is unlike any ot her. “Every person’s recovery is different. Although we go through many of the same trials and tribulations, everyone reacts differently; it’s just like having different fingerprints,” says SSG Olson.

SSG Josh Olson“Just a regular guy”

Before his injury, SSG Olson describes himself as someone “who did everything he could to excel and become a better soldier. It’s a life, not just a job.” Deployed to Iraq as part of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, he knew there was danger and “always a chance something can happen, but you don’t think about it because you might hesitate, half-step, or cut a corner and really put another guy in your unit in danger. Everyone has a letter for their family, but they put it away and don’t think about it.” While on patrol near Tel Afar, Iraq, a rocket-propelled grenade struck his truck. He dismounted to return fire and a second RPG round exploded and took his right leg off at the hip.

Post injury recovery

SSG Olson was evacuated to the 21st Combat Support Hospital in Mosul, then on to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and ultimately to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). While at WRAMC, SSG Olson was faced with a number of complications that extended his combined inpatient and outpatient stay to 18 months. “It’s pretty amazing what the human body can do when there are obstacles put in its way. In a way, it’s almost amusing how things evolve.”

At WRAMC, SSG Olson was housed with fellow amputees injured as a result of OIF/ OEF. “There’s an automatic bond between us. We all share something in common so there’s no awkwardness,” says Olson. Because of extended rehabilitation time spent at WRAMC, service members receiving care at WRAMC’s Amputee Patient Care Program are at various stages in their recovery process.

It’s common for newly injured amputees still in the hospital to see other amputees who are a few or many months out from their initial injuries walking through the hospital, eating in the dining facility, or receiving physical or occupational therapy. “We develop bonds based on knowing what you’re going through and they were where you are now,” says SSG Olson. This environment allows amputees to learn from each other and develop new and unique tactics for overcoming obstacles. “We learn from each other and pass the information on to the generation coming behind us.”

By being part of a community of amputees, service members are able to observe the milestones of each other’s recovery. “Some come around faster – you can be on cloud nine for three months and wake up one morning and be down in the cellar. You can stay in the cellar for a day or three months – is different for everyone. Having family and friends help. Mom and Dad were there for the first few months. Dad stayed about a month and Mom for two and a half to three months. If you’re used to living on your own and being independent, you want to become independent again ASAP. You have to relearn driving, shopping, carrying things in your hands while on crutches or get used to having a backpack all the time,” notes SSG Olson. “Some soldiers’ recovery is jump-started by having concerns about keeping up with their kids. Having small children run off or dart out of the store drives soldiers to develop their skills so that they can catch up with their kids before they reach the street. Sometimes their motivation is just wanting to be able to go dancing with their wives or girlfriends.”

In addition to support from his parents, the group setting allowed him to “get ‘adopted’ by other service members’ families and have extra parents and siblings throughout the country.”

Return to Duty?

Originally planning to get out of the Army and start a job with a Congressman, SSG Olson was invited to try out for the Army’s marksmanship unit. He discovered that he made the team and could stay in the Army and shoot. Unfortunately, his retirement paperwork had begun processing and it took seven months to reverse it.

Because of his advanced marksmanship skills, SSG Olson has had “tons of opportunities. I never thought that I’d be able to train and compete as a world-class shooter – I will be trying out for both the Paralympics and Olympics. This isn’t something I’d have been able to do before my injury. Even if I don’t make the Olympic teams, I’ll know that I’ve done my best.” During the Olympic team trials, SSG Olson’s marksmanship skills will be tested on equal terms with full-bodied athletes.

Now back on active duty at Ft. Benning, SSG Olson is “brushing up the marksmanship skills of National Guard and Reserve troops before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. I think if I help one person learn skills that will save their life or a buddy’s life, all my effort (physical therapy, multiple surgeries and working with the Medical Evaluation Board to stay on active duty) will all be worth it.”

SSG Josh Olson at ribbon cutting eventPassing Knowledge On to the Next Generation

“You need to then have a balance of family involvement and independence.” Realizing this article will be read by new military amputees and their loved ones, SSG Olson wanted to pass along some insights:

“Everyone who’s been deployed or seen combat is different because of the experience, and when you add the effect of an injury on that, it’s even a bigger difference. Be patient with the person; be eager to help but don’t wait on them every minute. Be there to encourage them and help them when they fall. If family/friends try to take over it’ll do two things: 1. Make the person angry and shut down or 2. Become lazy and expect help all the time.”

An additional opportunity SSG Olson had to help future generations of amputees was to assist in the development of a new vacuum socket to allow hip disarticulation amputees to have a socket that is more cosmetic and “very cutting edge. Too bad it takes a war to stimulate breakthroughs – maybe a good time for someone like me to have these injuries,” says SSG Olson.

“We’re not pioneers – but if we fail or don’t uphold or exceed standards, the next generation coming in will not be afforded the same opportunities we were given. We can’t fail on this mission.”


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Amputee Coalition, the Department of the Army, the Army Medical Department, or any other agency of the US Government.

Back to Top Last updated: 12/07/2014
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