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Arrowhead brigade

Medic earns recognition from Obama for her valor

Initiative to pack a medical kit helped save lives in Afghanistan

3rd Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. Public Affairs

Published: 02:56PM July 11th, 2013

Specialist Heidi Olson received special recognition from President Barack Obama during a ceremony held at the White House, July 4, for her selfless actions in Afghanistan in the wake of a May 8, 2012 improvised explosive device attack.

Olson, now a combat line medic for A Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, was a Female Engagement Team member when an IED attack required her to use her emergency medical training. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Soldier helped save the lives of two International Security Assistance Force personnel, critically wounded in separate attacks. She performed first aid while ignoring her own injuries that left her with impaired eyesight and permanent facial nerve damage.

Women in her military occupation specialty were ironically not permitted to deploy to combat when Olson joined the Army, but her MOS transitioned with several others in 2012 to allow female medics to serve in combat roles.

Olson was not a member of the patrol as a medic, but she had loaded her assault pack with medical supplies as a precaution.

“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 said.

Disregarding her own safety, she immediately ran to the interpreter and began to treat his wounds, though the area around him had not been cleared of secondary IEDs. Three other A Co., 5-20 Inf. Soldiers eventually joined her, including one of the line medics. Their efforts allowed the interpreter to be moved to a helicopter for medical evacuation. As they returned, a Soldier accidentally detonated a secondary IED, from which Olson suffered wounds to the face and was knocked unconscious.

When she regained consciousness, she did a hasty self-assessment then helped the line medic treat the life-threatening injuries of the other two Soldiers.

“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 said.

“No one really noticed the injuries to Spc. Olson until 10 or 15 minutes after the IED was initiated,” her squad leader Sgt. Thaddeus Hairrell said. “She was still handing us medical supplies until then. She said, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. Keep treating the other casualties.’”

Obama recognized her 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. She reacted as a line medic even though that was not her role at the time.

Olson enlisted in the Army during her senior year at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. Though she was eligible for Officer Candidate School, Olson chose to enlist first.

“I wanted to earn the salute,” Olson said. “I didn’t want to come straight from college, having no military background whatsoever. I felt like I hadn’t earned it.”

She wanted to be an infantry Soldier, but settled for combat medical specialist to get close to the action.

“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,” Olson said.

After graduating with honors from Basic Training at Fort Sill, Okla. in November 2010, she went to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before she was ultimately assigned with to 296th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

At the end of her first week, she answered 3rd Bde. Command Sgt. Maj. Murphy’s call to female Arrowhead Soldiers to join a 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,” Olson said.

She deployed December 2011 with the brigade in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“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.

Obama recognized Olson’s selfless actions and achievements in last week’s ceremony.

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 Inf. at JBLM.