JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Spc. Heidi Olson was recognized for distinguished service by President Barack Obama during a ceremony held at the White House, July 4, 2013, for her selfless actions in Afghanistan in the wake of an improvised explosive device attack in May 2012.
Olson, a combat line medic for Company A, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, was recognized for helping save the lives of two International Security Assistance Force personnel who were critically wounded in two separate IED attacks, despite her own injuries which left her with impaired eyesight in one eye and permanent nerve damage to her face.
On May 8, 2012, while conducting dismounted village engagement operations as part of the Female Engagement Team, Olson distinguished herself when an interpreter stepped on an IED while on patrol.
Even though Olson was not on patrol in the role of a medic because females were prohibited from being line medics at the time of the incident, she always made sure her assault pack was loaded with medical supplies.
"They told me I couldn't carry an aid bag but they didn't say I couldn't carry my assault pack with medical supplies. So I had my improvised aid bag," Olson explained.
Disregarding her own safety, Olson immediately ran to the interpreter and began to treat his wounds even though the area around him was not cleared of secondary IEDs.
Eventually, three other soldiers from Company A, 5-20 Infantry, including one of the line medics, joined her. Due to their efforts, the interpreter was treated and able to be moved to a helicopter for medical evacuation.
"On their way back to where they started from, one of my soldiers set off a secondary IED in which Spc. Olson received wounds to the face," recalled her squad leader, Sgt. Thaddeus Hairrell. "She was also knocked unconscious during the blast."
When Olson regained consciousness she did a hasty self-assessment to ensure she was not gravely injured, then set about helping Hairrell treat the other two soldiers whose injuries were life threatening.
"I took burns and shrapnel to the left side of my face and body. I had to ask if my eye was there as I couldn't see out of it," Olson explained.
Despite her wounds, Olson set about assisting Hairrell treat the other two soldiers whose wounds were life threatening.
"(Olson) was actually only on the mission for a FET team. She wasn't there to perform her job as a medic," Hairrell recounted. "She and the other medic were handing us supplies. No one really noticed the injuries to Spc. Olson until 10 or 15 minutes after the IED was initiated. She was still handing us medical supplies up until then. One of the soldiers finally looked up and saw her face while he was working on one of the other wounded. She said 'don't worry about it, don't worry about it. Keep treating the other casualties.’"
Olson continued to assist Hairrell up until they loaded the two critically wounded soldiers aboard another medevac helicopter. Even as they loaded the wounded, Olson wanted to return to her platoon to continue her mission as before.
"(When) we moved the other two soldiers to the medevac helicopter, she kept trying to refuse to get on," said Hairrell. "We finally got her on the bird and she left. She did an outstanding job and went well above what anyone would expect of any soldier who suffered wounds like hers."
Olson was recognized not only for her part in helping to save the lives of two ISAF personnel, but for doing so in spite of her own serious injuries. Additionally, Olson reacted as a line medic even though that was not her role at the time.
"She stayed motivated and did what she could to help us and went well above what I expected out of any soldier that was with us," Hairrell stated.
Olson enlisted in the Army during her senior year of college at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Even though she was eligible to apply for Officer Candidate School, Olson insists she intentionally chose to enlist first in lieu of getting a commission.
"I wanted to earn the salute. I didn't want to come straight from college, having no military background whatsoever, to being in the Army and having that inherent respect of people saluting me. I felt like I hadn't earned it," Olson explained.
Furthermore, she wanted to be in the field with her comrades.
"I would have initially done infantry if they had let me," Olson said.
Instead, she settled for the job of combat medical specialist, so she could get "more boots on the ground."
They (officers) don't have a job that can be combat medic as an officer. That was another huge factor in my decision to go enlisted," said Olson.
Olson attended Basic Training at Fort Sill, Okla., in November 2010, where she graduated with honors, before shipping to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for Advanced Individual Training. She eventually made her way to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., where she was assigned to 296th Brigade Support Battalion, 3-2 SBCT, where female medics are sent, Olson explained.
After being at 3-2 SBCT a week, the brigade command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Murphy, called all the females in from 3rd Brigade to do the Female Engagement Team.
"I volunteered to do that because I signed up to be a combat medic and that was the only way I could do it because of my gender," explained Olson.
Olson deployed with 3-2 SBCT in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2011 not realizing that her actions would enable her to become part of something larger than herself.
"Initially, instead of pursuing my master’s to teach history, I decided I wanted to be part of it. I joined the Army to make history without realizing I'd really get a chance to do it," Olson said.
Her actions as a combat line medic were highlighted in Friday's ceremony recognizing her achievements and selfless service.
Olson received a Bronze Star Medal in February 2013 and had been named Hero of the Regiment in October 2012 because of her actions in Afghanistan. She still serves with 5-20 Infantry at JBLM.