Discuss as:

Josh Olson: A soldier's new reality

Staff Sgt. John Olson was on patrol in Iraq with his Army unit on Oct. 27, 2003 when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that tore off his right leg.

Josh Olson became one of the first soldiers to lose his leg at the hip level in the Iraq war when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol in 2003. He was a 23-year-old Army staff sergeant when he had to grapple with the situation so many Haitians are suddenly facing.

His story, told in his own words, continues msnbc.com's special series of essays from amputee veterans recounting what it means to rebuild your life after losing a limb.

By Josh Olson, with Linda Dahlstrom

I always thought being a soldier was a best job in the world – I still do.

Ever since I was a young kid I wanted to enlist. It's kind of what the men in my family do. My grandpa, father and uncle were all in the military. When I turned 17 I enlisted in the Army; I was 18 when I shipped out.

A few years later my unit was one of the earliest to get to Iraq. We arrived in February 2003, a few months before the U.S. invasion. When we first go there it was pretty chaotic. All the Iraqi military and police were gone and there was a lot of looting in the streets. I wouldn't really say it was anarchy but pretty close to it. Our job was to reclaim government buildings and vehicles.

The night of Oct. 27, 2003, we were patrolling town when a rocket hit the back of the vehicle. A second rocket, the one that hit me, came about 90 seconds later. At first I thought I'd just gotten shot and I tried to walk it off. I did a quick physical inventory like they teach us: I checked my arms and hands and they were OK, but when I reached down to my right leg, I realized I had a problem.


I knew I was injured but didn't realize my leg was gone, blown off at the hip. I tried to crawl back to the vehicle and then my driver saw me.

Later when they started cutting my equipment off at the aid station, that's when the pain kicked in: the sharpest, worst pain all the way down to my core. It took the wind right out of me, but they couldn't give me any pain medication because I'd lost so much blood they were afraid I'd pass away.

What I remember most about the helicopter that airlifted me to a hospital in Mosul was that there was a female on board and she smelled good, like she'd just showered. She was the first female I'd seen in about nine months. I don't remember anything else until I woke up eight days later in Germany. I still thought I was in Iraq and so when I saw my parents there I asked them I worried about why they were in a war zone and reminded them of how dangerous it was.

When they first told me I didn't have a leg, I was like "OK, but I'm still alive." It didn't honestly set in until about three months later when I was at Walter Reed and I put my prosthetic on for the first time and looked in the mirror. That was a blow, like getting hit in the chest. I thought, "Now I have to depend on this for the rest of my life." It wasn't something that was going to go away.

I went from being a 23-year-old who owned a house, owned my car, did everything on my own and was an infantry leader to a patient at Walter Reed who couldn't even go to the bathroom by myself -- my mom had to wipe me.

One of the things that drove me the most was that I wanted my independence back. I've always been taught to never quit, no matter what, and if there was still air in your lungs, you go fight. I knew there was something out there for me to do. I realized life wasn't over; it was just a new chapter. I was the same person inside, but on the outside I was different.

When Josh Olson was recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, he went on a patient outing to a shooting clinic and hit an astonishing 48 out of 50 targets in a row. He was later hired as an Army marksmanship instructor at Fort Benning, Ga.

Some days I still deal with depression and am mad that I don't have a leg, but it's getting easier to snap out of it. I've had to learn patience. Before I was a real Type A personality and "go go go go." I'm still kind of that way but having a prosthetic has made me slow down.

Someone asked me after I got hurt if I could do anything what would it be. I said I wanted to go back to Iraq with my prosthetic and look the insurgency in the eye and say, "You tried to knock me down but you didn't."

There's a program called Operation Proper Exit where they take wounded soldiers back to Iraq. It's given me a lot of closure. I used to wonder if it had been worth it, all the pain and death. I lost quite a few friends over there and have other friends who got blown up like me. But then I saw the playgrounds in Iraq and the schools and the traffic moving freely. Nothing will ever replace my leg and the friends I lost but, yeah, it was worth it.

Back when I was at Walter Reed, I was afraid I'd have to leave the Army but then I had an opportunity to come down to the marksman unit and try out as an instructor. Now I teach Army marksmanship in Fort Benning, Ga., and I'm training for the 2012 Paralympics. Shooting competitively for the Army and the Paralympics is my job.

When I first heard about the Haiti earthquake I remembered what I was going through at an American hospital and I can only imagine what it's like in a country like Haiti. I'm a soldier; I was in a war zone. I knew I could get hurt. But they didn't see it coming.

I know it won't be easy for them for the first year or two, like it wasn't for me. They'll have to make the decision if they want to live or if they want to give up.

For me, when I'm down, it helps to remember there are people who have it worse than me. When my unit went back to Iraq the second time, the guy who had my job was actually killed, along with one of my friends, so getting hurt may have actually saved my life.

A lot of my friends went on and joined the Special Forces. I'd have like to have done something like that, but I try not to think about it too much -- because that's just not what it is.