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Fort Drum hero OK'd for Silver Star, parents reflect on loss

Sep. 30, 2013 - 04:30PM   |  
An Army carry team hoists the transfer case containing the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis of Staten Island, N.Y., upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
An Army carry team hoists the transfer case containing the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis of Staten Island, N.Y., upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
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Ollis (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The Army is awarding Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis the Silver Star, honoring him for giving his life to shield a Polish officer from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Army officials have confirmed.

Michael Ollis, 24, of the 10th Mountain Division (Light), will be honored for his heroic actions during a complex attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni. During the Aug. 28 attack, he left a bunker and took the fight to the enemy, ultimately stepping between the bomber and the Polish officer.

Michael Ollis’ parents, Robert and Linda Ollis, of Staten Island, N.Y., told Army Times they have accepted an invitation to attend a remembrance ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y., where they will meet the members of their son’s platoon for the first time.

The Silver Star is the U.S. military’s third highest award for valor.

His parents say they feel honored, but admitted they were still processing a complicated array of emotions—among them grief and anger, but also pride for their son.

“I’ve been feeling sad, I’ve been feeling angry—‘angry,’ I say that because I talk to Michael and I say, ‘Why, why did you do what you did?’” said his mother, Linda.

“I guess I wanted him to run for cover too. I feel like he thought he was invincible,” she said. “I know he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, but it’s very hard for me to understand it.”

Said his father Robert, a Vietnam vet, “I wouldn’t want anybody to get hurt, but you’re talking to two parents, and it’s very hard. It’s very hard to say, ‘Mikey, why didn’t you duck?’”

“But it doesn’t surprise me that he was out in front, that was Michael,” he said.

As a kid on Staten Island, Ollis dreamed of serving in the Army like his father, and played combat in his father’s fatigues, climbed roofs and “ambushed” his dad, his parents said.

Michael Ollis was an enthusiastic ROTC student in high school and enlisted in 2006. He spent a combat tour in Iraq and was on his second in Afghanistan. He recently reenlisted for six years.

Ollis’ parents said they will miss their son’s phone calls, and his requests that they send care packages to neglected soldiers in the war zone. Once, he asked them to send a baby gift to a deployed soldier’s pregnant wife.

Upbeat and fun loving, Michael Ollis is perpetually smiling in a YouTube memorial posted by a friend. Whenever he was home, he loved being with his sisters’ children.

“He was basically very happy, very content with life,” his father said. “It was a rarity to see Michael upset, he’s more like his mother that way.”

Michael Ollis was leery of Watertown, N.Y., at first, a long drive from Staten Island but he grew to love the 10th Mountain and his friends there. Eventually he planned to settle in nearby Sackets Harbor, on Lake Ontario.

He loved soldiering, and was so modest he only mentioned in passing he’d received a Bronze Star for his service. “I kind of had to drag it out of him,” Robert Ollis said. “We were so proud.”

Robert Ollis was with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam. He received the Bronze Star for valor for his actions there and a Purple Heart for being wounded in action.

“I belong to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and you’re allowed to bring in an associate,” Robert Ollis said. “I said to him, ‘I don’t want you to be a member, I don’t want you to have this medal. When I pass on you can take mine.’”

Staten Island has embraced Ollis’ parents and honored its fallen son. Nine miles of busy Hylan Boulevard was quiet for the funeral procession, shut down to traffic and lined with police, firefighters and sanitation workers.

Ollis’ parents were on vacation in London when they learned he was killed. A company commander did not tell them the extent of his heroics, but said, “that we should be very proud, that he saved lives,” his father said.

On Aug. 28, after enemy forces attacked FOB Ghazni with a massive bomb and array of gunfire, mortars and rockets, Michael Ollis first took shelter in a bunker with his men. After accounting for them there, he went out towards the sound of gunfire and encountered a Polish officer.

The Polish officer credited Michael Ollis with saving his life.

Polish officials hope to posthumously honor Ollis and present his parents with the Polish military’s top honor for a foreign soldier, the Gold Medal.

“His behavior was really heroic and a sign of trust between our soldiers,” Brig. Gen. Jaroslaw Strozyk, Poland’s defense attache in Washington, D.C., told Army Times.

“What can I say, I’m so proud of him,” said his father, Robert.

“I’m hoping that Linda and I and my daughters can meet this Polish soldier, I just want to put my arms around him,” Robert Ollis said through tears. “Just thank him, that he’s home with his family, and I’m glad my son was able to help.”

Said his mother, Linda, “We are very lucky because we had a wonderful son for 24 years, and we miss him terribly.”

“God was good to us,” Robert Ollis said.

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