How US soldier Mike Ollis became an international hero when the Taliban attacked his base

Michael Ollis always wanted to be a soldier. 

When his native New York City was attacked on September 11, 2001, any remaining doubts about Michael’s future were erased. From that day, his only goal was to someday put on a uniform and serve his country like his father had.

‘I see the terror that hurts the city,’ young Michael wrote in a middle school paper. ‘I hear the screams from the towers.’

At age 17, Michael enlisted in the Armed Forces through the Army’s delayed entry program. For the next seven years, the Staten Island native would deploy to war zones three times – once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan – during critical periods in the respective conflicts. 

Through hard work and bravery, Michael won the respect of his fellow soldiers, rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School.

Young Mike loved to play soccer for his church parish, Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Staten Island, New York

Mike designed this 9/11-inspired artwork on his school computer for a class project 

A future soldier salutes in front of a US Army vehicle while visiting a museum 

It was on August 28, 2013, when Michael’s defining moment unexpectedly arrived. While stopping at Forward Operating Base Ghazni in Afghanistan for a few days on his way to another base, he and his men were jolted by a massive explosion from a 3,000-plus pound enemy truck bomb. 

As Taliban fighters disguised as allied Afghan soldiers penetrated the coalition base, Michael made sure his fellow soldiers were accounted for before leaving the safety of their bunker to join the fight.

What Michael did over the next few minutes eventually earned him the U.S. military’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, as well as the highest honor that can be bestowed on a foreign soldier by the Republic of Poland. 

Years later, the Polish soldier that the 24-year-old soldier from Staten Island saved on the battlefield would also give the ultimate tribute to his American counterpart: he named his son Michael.

‘Every generation has its heroes,’ said U.S. Army General James McConville while presenting the Distinguished Service Cross. ‘Michael Ollis is one of ours.’

Below is an excerpt of Tom Sileo’s I Have Your Back, the story of how Ollis became an international hero. 

Mike Ollis had been sprinting through a hellish battlefield despite a nagging leg injury. During those few agonizing minutes, he saw things no human being should ever see.

What he’d experienced during the Sangsar attack and Hur­ricane Sandy were horrific, but August 28, 2013, on FOB Ghazni was probably even worse.

Much of the dusty, smoke-filled landscape was now littered with body parts: arms, legs, and even torsos. The pieces were so badly charred that it was almost impossible to identify who had been killed or – in some cases – if the remains were even human.

Several soldiers who saw the same harrowing images as Mike would later be treated for post-traumatic stress (PTS).

The US Army Ranger tab is pinned to Mike’s shoulder in July 2012

Mike carries his grenade launcher, grenades and other heavy gear on a hot day in Afghanistan 

Mike puts his weapon on his back while showing off a Staten Island Biker’s Association patch while deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 

Mike and his fellow soldiers hand out soccer balls to children in Iraq in 2008 

Did the body parts belong to enemy fighters, coalition sol­diers, or perhaps some of Mike’s American friends?

Undeterred by the unknown, Mike ran toward the sounds of danger at a speed similar to his high school JROTC running drills on the Petrides School’s track back home on Staten Island.

That’s when he first encountered second lieutenant Karol Cierpica and gave him a look and hand signal the Pol­ish soldier would never forget.

The aftermath of the enemy attack on a base in Sangsar, Afghanistan, on December 12, 2010. The soldier standing and pointing on top of the rubble is believed to be Mike

The aftermath of the enemy attack on a base in Sangsar, Afghanistan, on December 12, 2010. The soldier standing and pointing on top of the rubble is believed to be Mike

US Army soldiers carry Mike's flag-draped casket at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in August 2013

US Army soldiers carry Mike’s flag-draped casket at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in August 2013

Karol, a junior officer in NATO’s International Provincial Reconstruction Team, had just finished a workout and was walking back to his living quarters when he heard the first explosion.

After initially believing it was a rocket attack outside his barracks, he knew the situation was even more serious when he saw a burning black mushroom cloud climb into the once bright afternoon sky.

The eastern wall had been breached and – as he stood there wearing just shorts and a T-shirt – insurgents were attacking his fellow troops with a series of RPGs, hand grenades, mortars, and exploding suicide vests.

After grabbing a helmet, pistol, and bulletproof vest, Karol linked up with five other Polish soldiers and began firing at insurgents trying to enter the base through the smoldering blast site.

He shot at several suspected terrorists, before separating from the group to gain a better vantage point, when he was hit in the leg by shrapnel from a nearby explosion.

He bravely returned to his feet and rejoined the fight, before ending up near a fence, which is where he encountered Mike Ollis.

While seeing an American counterpart didn’t surprise Karol, his appearance most certainly did. He was carrying an M4 rifle, but nothing else – no grenades or additional ammunition.

Even more astonishing was that the soldier, whose face was covered with dirt and black smoke residue, wasn’t wearing any body armor. He didn’t even have a helmet to protect his head.

A few seconds later, Karol and Mike were moving into position about fifty yards away from a series of Connex shipping containers. They were trying to reach an area that appeared to be a much better vantage point to de­fend the base than their current location inside a narrow lane, directly facing the breach in the wall.

Their new position was about one hundred yards away but was being blanketed by enemy bullets. To reach the shipping containers, Mike and Karol would first have to run for their lives through the increasingly rapid machine-gun fire.

While briefly turning around and looking into Mike’s blue eyes, Karol felt a strange but significant sense of camaraderie and confidence.

Even while surrounded by a whirlwind of gunfire, explosions, and yelling, Karol felt he knew exactly what the American was trying to commu­nicate: I will watch your back.

Mike crouched down and provided cover fire for Karol as the Polish soldier successfully navigated the narrow lane facing the breach in the perimeter wall. Braving machine-gun fire, Mike then made it through as well.

When Mike rounded the corner, he passed a parked Gator ATV vehicle and a Hesco barrier before darting between a Toyota pickup on his left and an empty water tank on his right.

That’s when Mike and Karol suddenly saw a group of four American special operators, including US Army Green Beret Staff Sergeant Earl Plumlee.

Earl had already seen several fellow American soldiers wounded and expended nearly all of his ammunition in the ten terrifying minutes since the first explosion.

He had killed several suicide bombers before seeing their vests either immediately blow up or start burning like blowtorches as they lay dead in the dust. One had been shot right outside a bunker near the breach and another only a few yards from there.

Body parts of five dead terrorists were strewn around the area where Mike, Karol, Earl, and three other service members were now positioned, which made fighting even more difficult since they had to worry about suicide vests possibly exploding all around them.

If they wanted to survive, it was crucial to stay as far away as they could from the dead bodies.

Except for two bullets, Earl had just run out of ammunition and asked a chief warrant officer to replace him at the front of their patrol when he heard a voice.

‘Hey,’ Mike yelled to Earl. ‘Can we come with you?’

‘10-4,’ Earl shouted. ‘Got any ammo?’

‘Not much, but that’s affirmative!’ Mike shouted with a grin.

US Army Gen. James McConville presents Mike’s posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to his parents

US Army Gen. James McConville presents Mike’s posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to his parents

Mike’s family meet Karol Cierpica for the first time at the Polish Consulate in New York

Newborn baby Michael Cierpica lies next to a teddy bear made out of Mike’s Army fatigues

Earl, who was making sure to keep a close eye on where he was walking in addition to looking for more bad guys, managed to take a quick glance back at Mike. He was probably about twenty­ five or thirty yards behind the Green Beret. He also realized Mike wasn’t wearing any protective gear.

The chief warrant officer, a Navy SEAL, Earl, and his fellow Green Berets were moving south across a concrete taxiway near two more shipping containers, with Karol behind them. Mike was in the rear, scanning for threats.

He had not yet reached the taxiway when, at 16:01, someone suddenly yelled: ‘GRE­NADE!’

A terrorist wearing an ANA uniform who had been lying on the ground after being shot suddenly sat up and – as if he was playing basketball – bounce-passed two hand grenades in the direction of the American soldiers.

Just as the ‘ting’ sound of the grenades bouncing on concrete was heard, the terrorist reached inside his shirt and detonated his suicide vest.

The initial grenade warning and three nearly simultaneous explosions spurred total and immediate chaos. Shrapnel and the dead terrorist’s body parts rained down on the area, which only added to the day’s already horrendous carnage.

All six coalition service members bolted for cover, but before anyone could blink – let alone check themselves for injuries­ – each had to somehow get back onto his feet and stay on red alert for more attacks.

The Staten Island ferry named after Michael H Ollis

The Staten Island ferry named after Michael H Ollis

The ferry made its maiden voyage on February 14, 2022

The ferry made its maiden voyage on February 14, 2022

A sculpture and memorial plaza now stand in the grounds of Mike's old school, the Michael J. Petrides School in Staten Island

A sculpture and memorial plaza now stand in the grounds of Mike’s old school, the Michael J. Petrides School in Staten Island

That’s when someone shouted an ominous and uncertain follow-up warning.

‘RED BANDANA!’ one of the soldiers screamed at approximately 16:02.

As soon as Mike heard the warning, his eyes started scanning the area for red. It was only a few seconds before he saw not only the color but the red bandana itself.

Through the smoke, Mike soon realized that the terrorist, who he had to assume was wearing a suicide vest like the others, was heading straight toward his Polish counterpart. If he didn’t immediately confront this imminent threat, the enemy fighter would reach Karol and almost certainly blow himself up.

Instead of trying to take cover, Mike raised his M4 carbine rifle and used all of his might to push forward and get between the enemy fighter and Karol while starting to fire. Earl and several other members of the patrol were shooting at the terrorist as well, but Mike was closest. If the threat was going to be neutralized, he was the soldier best positioned to protect Karol and thus the entire makeshift coalition patrol.

After nearly a decade of training and war fighting, there is little doubt that Mike knew he was in grave danger as the terrorist in the red bandana charged toward him. There is also little doubt that, in the harrowing split-second moment, the thought most likely filling the mind of US Army Staff Sergeant Michael Ollis was saving the life of the Polish soldier he had only just met.

From I Have Your Back: How an American Soldier Became an International Hero by Tom Sileo. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.