When tragedy struck on the battlefield, George Fox alumna Heidi Olson (’10) relied on her instincts and faith to save lives
by Jeremy Lloyd
The date was May 8, 2012, and Army Specialist Heidi Olson was with her platoon conducting routine operations in a small village outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. But in this war-ravaged part of the world there’s no such thing as routine, and Olson felt uneasy.
“We were getting really bad feelings in the village,” she says. “We just knew something was going on. Nobody was out, and the Afghan uniform police who were with us were talking kind of weird. It was very suspicious.”
Olson, a combat medic, on this day was serving as part of her unit’s Female Engagement Team, tasked with meeting the needs of the country’s largely marginalized female population and at the same time gathering valuable intelligence on the Taliban.
She waited with half her platoon just outside the dusty village behind a “grape row” – a wall made of mud covered by grape vines – while the rest of the unit cleared the area. Then, an explosion. Olson had only been deployed to Afghanistan for five months, but she knew this sound well – it was an IED.
“Dear God,” she thought. “I hope it’s not one of my guys.”
‘Dirt and blood were everywhere’
Olson ducked down as dirt and rock cascaded over the mud wall. Then, in an instant, training and instinct kicked in as she rushed into the village and right into the heart of the chaos. “There was tons of debris; it was hard to see,” she recalls with vivid clarity. “You could smell the chemicals that they used to make it. Dirt and blood were everywhere.”
Her worst fears were confirmed – her unit’s interpreter, part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, had been critically wounded.
It’s military protocol to first clear an area of secondary IEDs before moving in, but Olson knew there wasn’t time. Disregarding her own safety, she immediately went to work stabilizing her fallen comrade using the medical supplies she always stashed away in her assault pack, just in case.
As her hands worked, she prayed.
“In this job . . . you are potentially seeing someone on their worst day,” Olson says. “After someone has been seriously injured, it gives me an opportunity not just to physically patch them up, but to also pray over them and to pray with them.”
Soon others, including another medic, rushed in to help secure the man and transport him to a helicopter for medical evacuation. Though badly injured, Olson would later learn that the man made it out alive. She had done her job.
Fade to black
As the helicopter lifted off, Olson and two other soldiers started back to meet up with the rest of the platoon. “There was a lot of dust around so I bent my face forward to shield myself from it,” she says. It was the last thing she would remember before the second blast. One of the soldiers with her had set off another IED, and Olson was hit. Peppered with shrapnel, she lay unconscious on the warm dirt.
“The next thing I know I’m laying on my back and there’s a lot of dust around me,” she recalls. Her first thought after recovering consciousness: “Dear God, I just lost my legs.” A quick self-assessment alleviated her worst fears. Legs, check. Hands, check. Teeth, check. Then a prayer: “I said ‘Thank you God,’ because it could have been a lot worse.”
Olson knew her face was badly damaged – she could only see out of her right eye. She asked one of the nearby soldiers if her left eye was still there. He said yes, but Olson wasn’t convinced. “Don’t sugarcoat it!” she barked. “Is my eye there?” He again answered in the affirmative.
“Of course I didn’t believe him,” Olson says, “but at this point I had no life-threatening injuries – what needs to be done?” She saw that the other two soldiers who were hit were being attended to but no one was pulling security, so Olson picked herself up and grabbed a rifle. Once the area was secure, she turned her attention to assisting in the treatment of the two critically wounded men. In the chaos, no one noticed Olson’s injuries for nearly 15 minutes. “I tried to sneak away because I didn’t want to get medevaced out, but a flight medic snagged me up and made sure I got on the bird,” she says.
Olson didn’t go quietly. “I knew my guys were still in harm’s way,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave them vulnerable like that.”
Olson doesn’t think she’s a hero, but others would disagree. In February 2013 she was awarded a Bronze Star for her courageous actions in Afghanistan, and then in July there was an invitation to the White House, where the president told her, “I’m proud of you.”
Now stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Wash., after being treated for her injuries at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, Olson continues to work and train, leading a crew of medics in simulations and field exercises.
Her injuries included shrapnel and burns to her face and left eye, and shrapnel to her left hip, left shoulder, left arm and chest. “Other than that, I’m pretty lucky,” she says.
She still suffers from some vision loss and nerve damage to her face that makes her hypersensitive to weather changes and spicy foods, but you get the feeling Olson would much rather deal with those ailments than be recognized yet again for her courage on that fateful day in Afghanistan.
In addition to receiving a Purple Heart for the wounds she sustained in battle, in February 2013 Olson was awarded a Bronze Star for her heroic actions. Then, in July, there was an invitation to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, where the commander in chief told Olson, “I’m proud of you.” The president also mentioned Olson’s bravery in his Fourth of July address as she stood in the audience. “I had a deer in the headlights look,” she recalls. “What do I do? Do I wave? Do I smile?”
“I’m not big on the spotlight,” she says. “Honestly I don’t feel like I deserve it. I did what any competent medic in that situation would do. I did my job that day.”
‘A light in a dark place’
A self-described “history nerd” who during her time at George Fox studied under the likes of professors Kerry Irish, Caitlin Corning and Paul Otto on her way to a degree in history in 2010, Olson almost pursued a career as a teacher before making the decision to enlist in the military. “I decided I’d rather be a part of history than teach it,” she says.
She credits her professors for inspiring her to pursue her passion for service. “Their passion for what they do … inspired me to pursue something that I love,” she says. “It’s more important to love what you do than to be wealthy.”
Olson, who reenlisted in November, is ready as ever to be deployed, even as U.S. forces continue with the planned drawdown in Afghanistan. Wherever she’s called to serve, Olson believes the need for strong Christians in the military is greater now than ever.
“In the military, especially over the last 12 years we’ve been at war, there’s a lot of need for the understanding of God’s grace,” she says. “There’s a lot of anger there, a lot of hurt. . . . I have an opportunity to work side by side with these guys in dangerous situations and share God’s grace and God’s love, to be a light in a dark place.”