FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Staff Sgt. Joshua Olson called it his "Alive Day," the one-year anniversary of the day he lost his leg in Iraq (search).
He marked the date by traveling from Walter Reed Army Medical Center (search) in Washington back to the Fort Campbell woods where he once instructed men as a squad leader. Instead of camouflage, he wore jeans and a T-shirt, and used crutches to get around on one leg.
He wanted to get back to the comrades who helped him after he was hit by rocket fire. And he wanted to express his thanks, simply for being alive.
"Like I told these guys, `I would give anything, anything to trade places with any of you guys right now,"' Olson said. "I would. That's the total truth, but there's a power greater than me that has something else for me, so I move on."
The 25-year-old soldier from Spokane, Wash., and his buddies had once longingly talked of coming home and tearing up the town. But Olson was content this recent autumn day just to hang out and have a quiet dinner with comrades such as Sgt. Chuck Nye, who dodged gunfire to pick him up and carry him after he was hit, and Staff Sgt. Mathew Stewart, the war buddy he was so close to that the others called them "sisters."
"We call it the `I'm still alive' party," said the 34-year-old Nye, of Fitzwilliam, N.H., who lost an eye in a bombing two months after Olson was wounded. "We wish he'd just come back and we'd all be together."
Life has not been the same for these men since the late October day in 2003 when the convoy in which Olson was riding was ambushed in the northern Iraqi city of Talafar (search). It marked a turning point from peaceful relations in the area to increasing hostility for their unit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade.
The rocket blast took Olson's leg at the hip, which is higher than most leg amputees' injuries and makes it more challenging to fit an artificial limb. Olson has spent 11 months at Walter Reed, enduring frustrating additional operations because of abnormal bone growth at the hip that complicated the prosthetic fitting.
Dr. Jeffrey Guiliani, an orthopedic resident at the hospital, said that despite the hardships, Olson was always focused more on the well-being of the other amputees with him in Ward 57.
"He took it in perspective and realized he wasn't the only one dealing with the issues," Guiliani said.
Olson was at Walter Reed in December 2003 when he found out that his former compound in Iraq had been struck by a bomber, and that Nye had been wounded along with about 60 others.
"That was really hard for me," Olson said. "I pretty much told everybody to get out of my room."
A few days later, Nye was transferred to Walter Reed. Nye came out of the bathroom, and Olson was there waiting for him. It was the first time the two had been together since the night Nye rescued Olson.
"There he was," Nye said. "It was emotional — extremely emotional."
Stewart, 29, of Convoy, Ohio, called Olson almost weekly from Iraq to check on him. In one call, Olson promised him he would be at the Fort Campbell airfield when the unit returned from Iraq, and he would be standing. Nobody believed him, Olson said.
In January, though, Olson flew from Washington to Fort Campbell. When he did embrace Stewart and the other men at the airfield, he was bleeding where he wore the prosthetic and was in a lot of pain. But he was standing. The men cried.
"It wasn't a sad cry. It was a happy cry, like, `I'm happy to be here, you guys are home safe,"' Olson said.
Within minutes, they were laughing and telling stories.
Joseph Miller, lead clinical and research prosthetist at Walter Reed, said a lot of amputees talk of visiting their fellow soldiers a year after being wounded to mark their "Alive Day," and want to be there when their comrades return from Iraq.
"They want to go back because it helps the unit more than it helps themselves," Miller said. "They want to go back and say, `I'm OK."'
Although he knows he cannot be an infantryman, Olson said he may stay in the Army anyway, or else attend college and work for a congressman who has offered him a job.
Stewart said he has decided to leave the Army. "My heart will always be here doing this type of stuff, but I need a different lifestyle. It's just not me anymore," he said.
Nye said the Army life is for him, and he is prepared to go back to Iraq if necessary. "My wife wanted me to leave. I had contemplated leaving. I talked to her and I just came to the decision that this is who I am, this is what I do," he said.
Olson said of his comrades who might be going back to Iraq: "I'm scared for them. I know they're going to get the job done. They'll be fine, but I love them like a brother going to war, and I worry about them."