Running to the sound of gunfire, carrying only his rifle and one magazine of ammunition to a breach in the wall, Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis paid with his life two months ago when he saved a Polish officer and helped repel an attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan.
His parents, Robert and Linda Ollis, accepted the Silver Star Medal on their son’s behalf during a moving tribute Thursday at Fort Drum.
“In many ways, we have died a thousand deaths since that fateful day,” said Col. Stephen Michael, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI). “But we take pride in knowing we were numbered amongst him.
“Were it not for his actions, other mothers and fathers would and could be without sons,” he said. “Were it not for him, Lt. (Karol) Cierpica of the Polish task force would not be alive today.
“Staff Sgt. Ollis chose to act,” the colonel added, “and he died, so that others may live. He was and is the best of us.”
According to the citation, Ollis received the nation’s third highest award for valor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity under fire” during an attack in which he “directly prevented armed insurgents from gaining access” into the populated areas of FOB Ghazni.
On Aug. 28, enemy insurgents equipped with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests used vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to break through and gain access to the base.
Ollis, who served as squad leader of 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st BCT, was inside the FOB’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility when the complex attack began.
Ollis first ensured the safety and accountability of his men before heading out to meet the advancing enemy.
Along the way, he ran into Cierpica, whose leg was already riddled with shrapnel. The two men then joined members of a U.S. special operations element that had been engaged with insurgents on the airfield.
While exposed to enemy fire, Ollis and the small element attempted to clear an area just east of the unmanned aerial vehicle compound. Insurgents, using shipping containers for cover, engaged the coalition forces with effective small-arms fire and grenades.
Ollis and two other members of the exposed element worked their way up an alley for a better vantage point. Before the three could eliminate an insurgent threat up ahead, Cierpica was hit with more shrapnel and fell to the ground.
Another insurgent then approached from the rear and fired on the formation. Without body armor, and with no regard for his own safety, Ollis returned fire, positioning himself between Cierpica and the insurgent some 15 feet away.
As he moved to clear the downed insurgent, the suicide vest detonated. Ollis was mortally wounded.
“His actions that day directly saved the life of a Polish officer, and probably several others who were close by, and probably saved the lives of scores of others,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander.
The general said whenever Soldiers like Ollis die, people should not – alluding to the words of Gen. George Patton – mourn their passing, but rather thank God they lived.
“I thank God for men like Staff Sgt. Ollis,” said Townsend, before presenting Robert and Linda Ollis with the Silver Star.
Michael said Ollis was presented with multiple choices and multiple outcomes that day – all of them equally honorable.
“He could easily have chosen safety,” the colonel said. “But he moved to the sound of the guns, and in so doing, saved lives.”
Turning to Ollis’s parents, Michael said the evident character and leadership of a Soldier who worked hard and cared for others was “not accidental.”
“Much of it is a function of how he was raised, and of what you, Linda and Bob, instilled in him,” he said. “So, in honoring him, we honor you.”
Struggling through his emotional speech, Michael said those who knew and loved Ollis were wounded, but healing; mourning, but joyful.
“Because today, we honor a hero, our hero,” he said. “It would not have been done had he not done it. Many of us would not be here, had he not paved the way.”
Robert and Linda Ollis later shared how pride is embedded with the grief of losing their son.
“This is the bittersweet part of it,” Robert Ollis said. “We will miss him tremendously … (but) you can’t be any more proud of … what he did, giving up his life for another human being.”
Ollis loved what he was doing as a Soldier in the U.S. Army, his father said, even deciding to reenlist for six years after being stationed at Fort Drum.
“He said it was like finding a Family,” Robert Ollis said. “He said the whole 10th Mountain / Watertown area – he wanted to retire here.”
Linda Ollis said her son’s chosen profession and the choices he made the day he was killed are some of the things that make his death bittersweet.
“It’s hard to understand ‘why,’” she said. “But because we knew the type of character he (had), and how seriously he took his job, then it’s not surprising. I guess we really do know why.”
“We knew that there was a tremendous chance that this knock on the door would come one day,” added Robert Ollis, a Vietnam War veteran. “But it’s what my son wanted to do. He wanted to be a Soldier, and we supported that.”
Soldiers who worked with and for Ollis remembered a fiery, locked-on “ringleader” who led from the front, raised his voice when he had to, and made sure his Soldiers always got what they needed.
Staff Sgt. Brian C. Schnell, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-22 Infantry, said the day Ollis arrived from Fort Campbell, Ky., two years ago to check the unit, Schnell told him to get his ruck for a six-mile foot march.
“When we headed out with our squad, I noticed something,” he said. “The faster that I went, Ollis was right there beside me. So I went faster. Soon, it was just me and him, trying to outdo each other.”
Schnell said the two would become best friends in time, sharing the same leadership philosophies and passion for excellence.
“I guess, if you summed it up … it would be like we were brothers,” he said.
“I know Ollis is in heaven and will be looking over my daughter as she grows,” he concluded. “Her Uncle Ollis will keep an eye on her when I can’t be there.”
Cpl. Zachary R. Burnett, 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, B Company, called Ollis the best leader he ever had.
“I miss him a lot,” he said. “He put his Soldiers before himself.
“Until the end, that’s what he was doing,” he added. “He was protecting his Soldiers, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice for it.”
Burnett said Ollis was serious about soldiering. He said in Afghanistan, Ollis stayed up with him until midnight, night after night, drilling him with questions to prepare him for a promotion board.
“That’s why I have a couple of stripes on my (uniform); it’s because of him,” he said. “I made sure I didn’t embarrass him. I didn’t miss one question on the board. I was so happy that I made him proud.”
“He was a great person to be around – not just the best leader, but one of the greatest people I knew,” said Spc. Marshall J. Stanley, 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, B Company. “Becoming more of a leader now (myself), I know how to treat my guys. I know how to fight for them. He fought for us every day.”
Ollis’s parents said the outpouring of love and support since their son’s death has been overwhelming, from local neighborhoods on Staten Island to members of the Fort Drum community to letters from complete strangers across the nation.
Linda Ollis said in addition to the widespread and heartfelt sympathy, the memory of her son’s courage and remarkable distinction will help the couple carry on.
“I’m going to think of how brave my son is, and how selfless he is, and how proud I am of him, and how I can’t wait to see him again,” she said.
In addition to accepting the Silver Star on behalf of their son, Ollis’s parents will receive the Gold Medal of the Polish Armed Forces in New York City on Nov. 12.
The award, which recognizes service to the Polish army by foreign military and civilians who contribute to promoting its history and traditions outside of the country, will be presented by top civilian and military dignitaries of the Polish government.
Cierpica, the Polish officer who survived the attack, is scheduled to attend the ceremony as well.