Josh Olson: Operation Proper Exit

Nov. 10, 2009, 1:43 p.m. (ET)

He had pictured the scene so many times before, but when Josh Olson finally returned to Iraq last month, the moment nearly took his breath away.

Stepping of a plane in Baghdad, the 30-year-old Army staff sergeant and other veterans were welcomed with banners and embraces by active soldiers and military dignitaries.

But Olson wasn't interested in ceremonial displays that day.

''I'd been waiting so long to go back to Iraq,'' he said. ''I was in on the initial invasion in 2003. At the time, I thought: 'I'm going to be part of history.'

''But then ...''

Olson lost his right leg - and he thought his career - when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) struck his truck during a routine nighttime patrol in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in late October 2003. He woke up eight days later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the beginning of a long sobering journey home.

For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of the entire nation's 20th and 21st century wars, a day that holds special meaning to the Olson family, which has sent five generations to distant combat.

But soldiers from other wars never returned to the battlefield where they were injured while the war was still in progress. Operation Proper Exit allowed Olson - a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit and U.S. Paralympics Shooting National Team- and seven other disabled veterans the chance to return to honor fallen comrades and heal psychological wounds at the places where they were maimed.

It got rough at times. During a visit to a forward operating base near the city of Muqdadiya, northeast of Baghdad, Army Sgt. John Hyland broke down after visiting a memorial wall with pictures of soldiers who died while based there. Olson and the other soldiers gathered around Hyland, shielding him from a photographer.

"We took care of each other,'' said Olson, of Spokane, Wash., who frequently visits wounded vets at Walter Reed when he isn't teaching marksmanship or training for the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

At the same site, Olson helped Army Cpl. Craig Chavez, who has struggled with memories of the war since he stepped on a bomb during an ambush about 20 miles from Baghdad.

Chavez was blinded in one eye and his face was so badly damaged that he underwent full facial reconstruction. His best friend was killed in the attack, one reason Chavez went back to the forward lines.

"He had me help him find his buddy's name on one of the memorial walls. He can't see really well," Olson said. "That was hard for me. There's a bunch of names and when I found it he said: 'Where is it.' He touched it, ran his finger over it and started crying. I started crying; I know what it feels like.

"I have a lot of friends who didn't come home, a lot of friends who've been wounded. Sometimes I wake up from a bad dream and think: 'Was it all worth it?'

"For closure, I needed to go back and finish what I started, to leave on my feet and not on my back."

The day that changed Olson's life began routinely enough. Leading his infantry squad through familiar streets near Iraq's northern border, he was rounding a corner when insurgents opened fire with RPGS. The second grenade exploded near Olson, knocking him to the street.

"I thought the wind had gotten knocked out of me, so I said: 'OK, just stand up and walk if off' - like I used to do in football practice. But I couldn't. I kept trying to get up ...then I looked down and my leg was gone. Everything was still attached, but there was a big gaping hole where your pocket is on your right side. I knew I was in bad shape.  The explosion blew my leg off."

Heavily medicated, Olson woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, surrounded by other amputees. During the next 15 months he slipped into depression and feelings of aimlessness, back from war but not really home.

"It might sound kind of strange - but the first time I ever saw myself stand up on a prosthetic leg was kind of a low point," he said. "That's when it really hit home: 'I'm going to have to depend on one of these the rest of my life to get around.'"

Olson joined the Army a year out of high school and served six months in Kosovo and a year in Korea before shipping out to Iraq eight months before the attack. As he weighed his prospects for a normal life at Walter Reed, he was convinced his military career was over.

But after hitting 48 of 50 clay targets on a shooting range - part of the hospital's recreation program - he was invited to interview with the Army Marksmanship Unit and joined the elite group shortly afterward. In 2004 he became the first athlete with a physical disability to be nominated to the Army's World Class Athlete Program, six months after receiving the Purple Heart from President George W. Bush.

But as Olson steadily climbed through the ranks - he narrowly missed qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games - he couldn't get Iraq out of his mind.

"There were guys making their fifth or sixth trip and I felt like I wasn't doing my part. It's not the same as being there," he said.

"But I never thought they'd let guys who were wounded go back to a war zone."

Then he learned about Operation Proper Exit, a program supported jointly by the USO and the Troops First Foundation and endorsed by American military leaders. A test group of five soldiers returned to Iraq in June during a secret exercise, an experience that was so successful that a second trip was organized for October.

"They need to come back so they don't have to go on dreaming about Iraq, go on dealing with the night terrors of Iraq," Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, who has been coordinating military support for the program, said during Olson's trip.

Returning to the trauma and drama of a combat zone was fraught with danger, even with the Iraq war winding down, which is why Olson prepared for the trip like he was re-entering combat.

"I wanted my personal affairs in order. I knew it wasn't going to be a vacation. I was going into a war zone - and anything can happen when you go into a war zone," he said.

"We couldn't go out on the roads. The sergeant major who took us around said: 'I didn't bring you guys over here to get blown up again and killed. But I want to give you guys the best experience I can give you.'"

Because of recent skirmishes in Tal Afar, however, Olson couldn't return to the place where he was wounded; instead he had to settle for a nearby base.

"It was a little disappointing," he said.  "I wanted to piece things together, get a mental picture in my mind how everything was, go through everything in my head. I still second-guess the whole situation, and what I could have done differently. There's not a day that goes by that I don't."

Yet as he flew over former battlefields in a Black Hawk helicopter, making stops throughout the country and visiting with Iraqis, Olson was struck by the quiet and relative peace, a reassuring scene compared to his 2003 tour of duty.

"I saw how much change there's been," he said. "Some of the Iraqis told us: 'it's because of you that I have a job now, that I can support my family, and live like a real man.'

"I still have down days. I still have some bad dreams. I can't say it made it 100 percent worth it. But I sleep better, knowing what's going on in Iraq today."

Olson undoubtedly will reflect on those thoughts and his fallen friends today, when generations of soldiers will be saluted in hometown parades, religious services, wreathe-layings and other Veterans Day ceremonies across the country.

"My sacrifice isn't as much as some guys,'' he said.  "This day is for them."