Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis knew from an early age he wanted to be a soldier, just like his father who had served in Vietnam.

But Ollis’ desire deepened with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City, a surrogate hometown for the Staten Island native. That calling to serve would lead Ollis into some of the most intense combat of the recent wars and an episode that would result in a Distinguished Service Cross and Poland’s highest honor for an allied soldier.

Author Tom Sileo has chronicled the exploits of various heroes of the Global War on Terrorism in five nonfiction books in a little more than a decade.

Those stories include the heroism of Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg, three brothers who served as a Navy SEAL, Green Beret and Marine, two U.S. Naval Academy classmates and friends killed in battle and Marine Maj. Megan McClung, the first female academy graduate to die in combat since the school’s founding.

In his recently published sixth book, “I Have Your Back,” Sileo tells Ollis’ life story, what led him to join in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and what kept him serving as headed out for a third combat deployment — one that ultimately took his life. On that tour in Afghanistan, Ollis saved the life of a Polish soldier he barely knew and became a kind of national hero in that country.

On Aug. 28, 2013, while serving with 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Ollis was at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan when attackers detonated a 3,000-pound car bomb before an enemy force assaulted the base.

Ollis sent his team to get their gear while he ran toward the blast site with one magazine in his rifle and no body armor. Once there he found Karol Cierpica, a lieutenant with the Polish Army. Cierpica had been wounded by shrapnel to his leg, and Ollis quickly moved him to an area with other soldiers who were returning fire. As Ollis and Cierpica reached the position, an enemy grenade landed and exploded, further wounding Cierpica. As Ollis rendered first aid, the last surviving enemy fighter rushed their position. The attacker was wearing a suicide vest.

Ollis stood up and shielded Cierpica from the blast, saving the lieutenant’s life at the cost of his own.

Sileo spoke with Army Times recently about his work writing military stories, the importance of documenting the narratives of Global War on Terror veterans and his most recent book.

*Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve written a lot about Global War on Terror veterans. Why has this been important to you?

A: I just try to tell as many stories as I can about our troops, veterans and their families to help Americans remember the great men and women who stepped forward to serve and certainly those who made the ultimate sacrifice to make sure we never forget what they did for our country and our families.

Q: How did you learn about Staff Sgt. Ollis’ story and decide to write a book about him?

A: About 10 years ago I got in touch with Staff Sgt. Ollis’ sister, Kimberly. She had read a previous book of mine and reached out to tell me that she thought it was a good book and that her brother had just been killed in Afghanistan. At the time I was writing a syndicated weekly column about the sacrifices of our troops. I said I’d love to interview her and find out more about her brother’s life. She told me how her brother had died to save the life of a Polish soldier, which really struck me. Having been exposed to a lot of stories about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this was the first time I had heard of an American sacrificing his own life to save a foreign soldier. I wrote a piece about him but over the years I always thought there was more of a story to tell. And his story said a lot, not only about a generation of heroes and about alliances that are so crucial, are even more critical now than they’ve been probably since the Cold War. The fact that Michael could forge a bond in just a few minutes with a soldier from a different country that he’d only just met and then be willing to stand between him and a suicide bomber, it just said a lot to me.

Q: Across the six books you’ve written about individuals in these conflicts, have some themes emerged?

A: If there’s one common thread, I think it’s selflessness, the fact that every subject of every book that I’ve ever written wanted to serve, to save lives. They wanted to serve for the brave man or woman next to them, or for their families. Certainly, in Michael’s case. There’s a line in the book near the funeral and some family and friends have gathered at the Ollis home on Staten Island and an ex-girlfriend of Michael’s was there and she said, “you know, it just hit me that this is what Michael lived for, all of his friends and family being together.” I think that really sums up this generation of volunteer warriors who raised their hands and swore to defend our country and went to these faraway places so that the rest of us didn’t have to.

Q: What value have you found for the individuals you’ve interviewed and shared their stories?

A: Michael’s father was a Vietnam veteran, he never really talked about it with his son until Michael joined the Army. I think one of the touching things about the story is the way they bonded and Michael really helped him with some of his demons from Vietnam by sharing some of the stories from Afghanistan and asking his dad’s advice. I think veterans should keep telling their stories. It’s so critical that we pass on stories like Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis’ and other stories I’ve had the privilege to help tell the next generation because at some point in time, when they’re called upon to preserve our freedom, I think it’s important that they know about those who came before them.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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