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The parents of Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis receive an award from a Polish defense official Nov. 12. (Sgt. Bryan James / Army)
Ollis (Sgt. Bryan James / Army)
They had each other’s backs.
The Polish officer whom Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis died shielding from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, said he and Ollis had stood back to back shooting at attacking insurgents.
“We protected each other,” Polish 2nd Lt. Karol Cierpica told Army Times. “I fought front. Michael, my back.”
“Michael stayed between the terrorist and me,” Cierpica said.
Cierpica, a 38-year-old husband and father, said he dreams of taking his family to the United States to visit the grave of his new “brother,” Ollis.
On Tuesday, Ollis’ parents, Robert and Linda, met Cierpica for the first time at an emotional ceremony honoring the American at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York City.
Ollis, 24, of Staten Island, N.Y., was with the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light), of Fort Drum.
Ollis’ parents embraced Cierpica, and in a private meeting before the ceremony, they asked him about their son’s final moments and told them they feel a special bond with him.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Robert Ollis said. “I told him, ‘I love you because you were with my son, shoulder to shoulder.’ ”
Many times, Cierpica thought about what he would say to his savior’s parents, but he was speechless when the time came. And then found the words, “Thank you, thank you so much for your son.”
Ollis received the Afghanistan Star from the president of the Republic of Poland and the Army Gold Medal from Poland’s minister of defense. He had posthumously recieved the Silver Star, the U.S. military’s third highest award for valor.
Tuesday’s ceremony, attended by Ollis’ platoon mates, Army officials and Polish dignitaries, was a mix of sadness, pride and a celebration of the friendship between the allied nations personified by Ollis’ final sacrifice.
“It’s a symbolic act, very painful, and I share the feelings of the parents,” Polish Ambassador to the U.S. Ryszard Schnepf told Army Times. “I’m a father, too, and I can only imagine the situation and what it means to lose a son.”
Ollis met Cierpica during the Aug. 28 attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni. Ollis accounted for his men in a bunker and ran toward the danger, where he linked up with Cierpica in spite of the language barrier.
A massive truck bomb had breached the base’s eastern wall, and 10 suicide bombers flooded through. Cierpica caught shrapnel in his leg from an insurgent’s grenade earlier in the firefight, and shrapnel in the other leg after he met Ollis, knocking him down.
Ollis stepped between Cierpica and an advancing insurgent, fired from five meters and killed him. But as Ollis moved to clear the downed insurgent, the suicide vest detonated and its blast mortally wounded him.
Cierpica recalled emotionally that after they were taken for medical care he lay in a bed next to the unconscious American soldier who saved his life.
Ollis’ sisters, Kimberly and Kelly, were grateful Cierpica shared the story, offering them a new measure of closure and his friendship.
Cierpica invited the Ollises to visit his family in Poland, and the sisters were excited to bring their husbands and children.
“I told him that he’s part of our family now,” Kelly Ollis said. “We already made that connection in a short period of time.”■