As soon as Sgt. 1st class Josh Olson fired his first shot at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, he made history: He became the first active-duty U.S. soldier to combat to compete in the Paralympic Games.
Olson lost his right leg after being attacked while on patrol in Iraq in 2003 but has been able to remain on active duty at Fort Benning, Ga., and is a part of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. He trains alongside of many Olympic soldiers there and now has several other wounded warriors along with him as well.
Today, as Americans celebrate Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, many also recognize that soldiers who have served this country and been wounded in combat can continue to represent this nation as soldier-athletes.
The Army announced late last year the expansion of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit to include 24 wounded warriors as members of its Paralympic and instructor sections. According to Staff Sgt. 1st class Armando Ayala, there are now nine wounded warrior shooters (including Olson) as part of the program and two coaches. Ayala, who has been at Fort Benning for 18 years and served in Afghanistan, has been training the wounded warriors.
At first there was some concern that the program would not fill its allotted spots, but Ayala was optimistic and said he expected there will be a dozen shooters in the program by July.
“I didn’t accept that,” Ayala said of not being able to fill up the program. “I thought these soldiers would accept the challenge and they have.”
The Army spread word of the program through advertisements and social media and was able to recruit several soldiers to the program. All nine of the shooters currently in the program are men and all happen to be leg amputees, although soldiers can participate in the program with other injuries. Currently, all of the soldiers in the program are men although some women have come to Fort Benning to try it.
One of the biggest advertisements for the program, however, was through the publicity surrounding Olson last summer in London. Just having Olson around at Fort Benning, both training and instructing soldiers, helps other wounded soldiers see what opportunities are possible.
“Without a doubt he’s inspired folks,” Ayala said. “He might have lost a limb but he’s achieved a world-class level of competition and that says a lot to the Army soldier. It’s amazing how these guys can overcome those obstacles. I’m really excited about this team.”
U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Commander Lt. Col. Don A. King Jr. recently attended a USA Shooting board meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., and spoke of how the program has expanded so quickly.
“This ground-breaking, goal-setting and future-oriented program provides an opportunity to raise Army marksmanship proficiency,” King said shortly after the program was announced. “The expansion of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit to include soldiers wounded in combat will allow them to represent the Army in international competition, tell their story of strength and resiliency while continuing to serve their nation.”
Although the participants in the program are soldiers not all of them have experience competing at the world-class level. In fact, many of them came to Fort Benning with little or no competitive experience. Now they are training at one of the world’s top training centers, where not only of Olson takes target practice but also the training home for Olympic gold medalists such as Vincent Hancock and Glenn Eller.
“These guys are learning really fast,” Ayala said. “I definitely think we are on the right track.”
Three participants in the wounded warrior program will compete 2013 Rifle and Pistol National Championships, set for June 2-9 at Fort Benning: John Joss, Shaun Tichenor and Eric Trueblood, all sergeants.
“The overall goal is to recruit wounded warriors to compete in Paralympic and Olympic events,” Ayala said. “Many soldiers want to continue to be in active duty and this is a great way for them to do that.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.