Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Books: "I Have Your Back" By Tom Sileo, On A War Hero From Staten Island


I Have Your Back: How an American Soldier Became an International Hero

By Tom Sileo

St. Martin's; hardcover, 256 pages; $28.00; available today, Tuesday, June 4th

Tom Sileo has authored or co-authored six military non-fiction books about heroes of the wars the United States fought in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11, 2001, attacks, which includes Three Wise Men, his 2021 collaboration with combat veteran and Gold Star brother Beau Wise. Sileo is also a contributing senior editor of The Stream and a recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's General Oliver P. Smith Award for distinguished reporting.

I Have Your Back centers on the story of Michael Ollis, a Staten Island native who wanted to follow in the footsteps of his military father, who fought in Vietnam. This deep feeling of wanting to serve was hardened by the 9/11 attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

From that day forward, Ollis' only goal was to serve and protect. Mike joined the JROTC in high school, and one of their trips was to Hawaii to visit military installations. There also was a visit to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, which really affected Ollis. 

Ollis' biggest research project in high school was on Father Vincent Capodanno, a US Navy chaplain who was killed in action during the Vietnam War. Ollis felt a kinship with him because he also was a devout Catholic from Staten Island, and Sileo provided what Ollis wrote about him in that project, including this: "Father Capodanno ran from his shelter not once, but a few times into the firefight to take care of the men in his battalion. The fighting lasted for hours. He was hit by shrapnel which took off his right fingers and shredded his right arm. He didn't stop taking care of his men. He anointed the dying and wounded with his left hand instead."

In 2006, just before his eighteenth birthday, Ollis arrived for boot camp at Fort Benning, near Georgia. He entered as a PFC due to his JROTC experience, which is not like most recruits, and his first letter to his parents started with "Hooah!" He eventually trained in Europe and, while completing his predeployment training at the Joint Multinational Training Center in Hohenfels, he found out that in March 2008, he would be on "heading to Kuwait as part of an advanced deployment team that would receive armored military vehicles at one of the country's naval ports," Sileo wrote.

Ollis earned the U.S. Army's Ranger tab after two tense combat deployments in the mountains of Afghanistan.

In 2013, Ollis was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light). On August 28 of that year, Ollis and his entire coalition military base, Forward Operating Base Ghazni, were trapped in the middle of a major Taliban assault. Even though he had been ordered to retreat, Ollis took up the fight. At that moment, Ollis came upon a desperate Polish army officer, Lt. Karol Cierpica.

They were surrounded by enemy fighters and were low on ammunition, but Ollis never left Cierpica's side. He had his back, and displayed a bravery that would cost Ollis, who was just 24 years old, his life. 

Posthumously, Ollis was awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. Poland also awarded him the highest honor it can bestow on an allied soldier.

In this excerpt, Sileo writes of Ollis' heroism to the end: "'This mam saved my life.'

Those five words were uttered by wounded Polish army second lieutenant Karol Cierpica during a chaotic terrorist attack on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ghazni in Afghanistan on August 28, 2013. The man the Polish soldier spoke of lay bleeding heavily next to him on a trauma bed inside a military medical-aid station.

It had been only a few minutes since the two men had first met during a ferocious firefight that started with a massive suicide bombing that sent a mushroom cloud into the air and enemy fighters pouring into the coalition base. Yet in that moment - even with both his legs impaled by shrapnel - all the Polish soldier cared about what the person lying next to him.

The man was young and strong but barely breathing. His army fatigues had been frantically torn off by doctors hoping to save his life, which meant the Polish soldier couldn't see his name tag.

Even, with raging gunfire and loud explosions continuing to engulf the area around the aid station, the only sound second lieutenant Cierpica could focus on was the silence coming from the man beside him. To his amazement, the man who had saved his life was not a fellow Polish soldier. He was American.

As the soldier would soon find out, his severely wounded American counterpart's name was Michael Ollis, a twenty-four-year-old staff sergeant and squad leader serving with the Second Battalion, Twenty-Second Infantry Regiment, First Brigade Combat Team of the US Army's legendary Tenth Mountain Division. He was from New York City - more than four thousand miles from the Polish capital of Warsaw.

As second lieutenant Karol Cierpica prayed for the life of the injured American hero who lay next to him, Michael's parents, Bob and Linda Ollis, were on vacation with friends in London, England. That didn't stop Bob - a decorated Vietnam War veteran - from saying the same prayer he'd been whispering every day while his son was busy serving three separate combat deployments in the past seven years.

What Bob couldn't have known is at that very moment, his beloved Michael was fighting for his life inside a medical facility on a remote FOB in eastern Afghanistan.

'Please don't hurt him, Lord,' the worried father prayed. 'Hurt me.'"

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