Al’s Afternoon Tea: I Have Your Back, A Special Memorial Day Interview With Best-Selling Military Author and Friend Tom Sileo

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis on a combat deployment. His heroism is the subject of a new book "I Have Your Back: How an American Soldier Became an International Hero" from The Stream's Tom Sileo.

By Al Perrotta Published on May 27, 2024

Welcome back in for a special serving of Al’s Afternoon Tea. 

On this Memorial Day we are excited to have Stream editor and bestselling military author Tom Sileo drop by. He’s got a new book out June 4 called I Have You Back: How An American Soldier Became an International Hero.

On a Mission to Share the Stories of the Fallen and Their Families

Al’s Afternoon Tea: First off, I want to thank you. Before the first Memorial Day after The Stream’s launch, you caught wind that we were going to post some chirpy, cheery article about Memorial Day weekend picnics and the start of summer season. You came down hard, insisting with a force that was not to be ignored that The Stream‘s Memorial Day coverage must focus solely on those who gave their lives for this country. And your voice has carried us all these years.

Where did this passion for the fallen and their families come from?

Tom Sileo: My two grandfathers served in World War II, and my dad in Desert Storm. But it really was right after 9/11, when I got my first job at a TV station near Fort Benning in Georgia, and really got to see the base transition into a wartime environment. And just seeing the way not only the soldiers themselves, but the families, had to sacrifice so much knowing that their loved ones were going be headed over to Afghanistan and then eventually Iraq. It gave me such a deep respect for this nation’s all-volunteer military force and their loved ones.

As a civilian, if I have a chance to help tell a few of these stories, then I feel it’s a duty and an obligation to do so. And also a privilege because I’ve gotten to meet so many incredible people.

AAT: Your new book tells the story of Army soldier Michael Ollis, who was killed in eastern Afghanistan in 2013. What drew you to him?

TS: At the time that Mike made the ultimate sacrifice, I was writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column. I saw the story in the local Staten Island newspaper, and saw something about the fact that he had saved a foreign soldier’s life. It was the first time I could recall reading that an American soldier had laid down his or her life for a foreign soldier in Afghanistan — in this case, a Polish soldier.

I was able to get in touch with Mike’s sister and interviewed her for a piece. I was just so inspired by the fact that not only had Mike come from New York and been inspired to serve in large part by 9/11, but he was willing to give his own life to save a Polish soldier who he’d only just met.

A couple years later, I got in touch with the parents and did a follow-up story that I believe was the first article I ever wrote for The Stream in 2015. It was called “Having Their Backs,” and it was about Mike. So here we are nine years later, and there’s a book coming out.

It’s a pretty surreal experience, but again, it’s, it’s such a privilege getting to know the Ollis family and and Mike’s friends and fellow soldiers.

Running Toward the Danger

AAT: Tell me what Michael Ollis did on August 28, 2013.

TS: Mike and his unit were only about a month, month and a half from going home when their deployment was extended. So they were actually passing through Forward Operating Base Ghazni in late August 2013. They were really just kind of chilling out for those few days. It was a Polish-run base, so they’d had a security briefing when they got there saying, “If the base is attacked, you just head to your bunkers and let Special Forces handle it.” Sure enough, on August 28, 2013, there was a massive Taliban attack, starting with a 3,000-pound bomb detonating at the gate.

Right away, Mike got all of his guys together.

They did go into the bunker and made sure everyone was accounted for. Mike said, “I’m going out.” One of his fellow soldiers actually put up a little bit of a fight with Mike. He said, “No, you can’t go out there by yourself. You only have your pistol. You don’t have your body armor.” And Mike basically said, “Don’t worry, I got this. I want you to make sure all these guys are safe.”

So Mike went out, and that was when he linked up with the Polish soldier, Karol Cierpica, as well as a U.S. Special Forces Unit. And they just started fighting the Taliban attackers. There was that moment when Mike told the Polish soldier, Karol, “I’ll be behind you, but I have your back.” The Polish soldier didn’t speak English, but that was his understanding of what Mike said to him, “I have your back.”

And sure enough, a suicide bomber wound up charging toward Karol. Mike got in between them, started firing. The suicide vest detonated. And Mike took the brunt of the blast and wound up dying from his wounds.

Right away, as soon as they got into the hospital, the Polish soldier, who was also wounded, was telling anyone who would listen, “That American saved my life.” And he wanted to know his name and everything. Mike unfortunately didn’t make it, but he laid down his life, quite literally, for Karol, who would not be here today without what Mike did.

AAT: What is it that drives a man to put himself almost totally unprotected between a suicide bomber and a stranger?

TS: Every soldier who ever served with Mike, and even his best friends back in Staten Island, obviously were devastated by what happened. But nobody was surprised in the least bit that he was willing to do what he did. All he ever talked about to others was keeping his men safe. And, while this Polish Army lieutenant was not, quote unquote, “one of his men,” they were fighting on the same side. They were fighting against the terrorists. They were fighting against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Mike told him, “I have your back.” And he kept his promise.

When people read the book, I think they’ll learn a lot from Mike’s first deployment to Iraq, and especially his second deployment to Afghanistan. There was an incident in that second Afghanistan deployment, where Mike felt that he could have saved more lives in a particular incident. I think as soon as he had that chance again, even though it was in the spur of the moment — frantic, explosions and gunfire all around him — I think he said, This is my chance and I’m not going to let it happen again. If I die, it’s gonna be with no regrets and I’m gonna lose my life saving somebody else’s life.

Honoring His Father

AAT: Michael’s father, Bob, also served and was severely wounded in Vietnam. That’s a fascinating part of the story as well.

TS: We talk about Memorial Day, obviously, but I also think this book has a big Father’s Day theme to it, because perhaps even more than 9/11, which happened in Mike’s home city, I think his father was the real driving force why he wanted to serve from a young age. There are pictures in the book of Mike wearing his dad’s old Army jacket, and he had written poems and done a class project about Vietnam. He was so proud of the fact that his dad served there.

His father said something really poignant, which I included in the book. “Mike made me feel special for having served in Vietnam. And I had never felt that way before.” A different time, different generation, different war, and a lot of those brave people who served in Vietnam did not feel appreciated when they got home.

Mike was able to do that for his dad, and he was even able to pin his dad’s Bronze Star on him when he received it 40 years after the battle. There was just such a close bond, and there were some really emotional scenes where, not only Mike talking to his dad about things he had seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his dad talking to him about Vietnam, which he had spoken very little about over the years. And they just helped each other with the scars and the wounds of war.

It’s just so tragic that Bob wound up losing his son in Afghanistan. I’m so grateful that he trusted me to tell the story of his son and his family because he’s just a wonderful man.

The Polish Hero and an Honor Greater Than a Medal

AAT: You said the word “hero.” Michael Ollis has become a hero in Poland. Tell me about that. He was not only honored with awards, they named a dining hall after him.

TS: I think a lot of that comes from Karol because from the moment he got to the hospital, and then certainly when he went back to Poland, he was telling anyone who would listen, “Michael Ollis, he saved my life. This American saved my life.” And the story got filtered up through the Polish military and then eventually to the Polish president himself.

Months later, the Polish consulate in New York hosted an event to honor the Ollis family. And that was when they got to meet Karol for the first time. He flew over from Poland for it. That was very emotional. And as the story was told, more and more the Polish people and certainly the Polish government really started to embrace that. Whenever the Ollises go to Poland, they receive a red-carpet welcome with people even stopping them on the streets, knowing they’re the parents of the American soldier.

I think the greatest honor of all, beyond the medals and everything else that the Polish government has bestowed on Michael, is the fact that Karol named his firstborn son after the American who saved him. I don’t think there’s any more of an honor than that. Bob and Linda Hollis regard Michael as their grandson.

It’s amazing that he wound up becoming such a revered figure in Poland, and rightfully so.

AAT: That’s so beautiful. I’m getting all weepy here and snot is running out of my nose. Thank you for that. You always do that to me.

This is your sixth book profiling American heroes, and you’ve encountered countless stories of those who gave their all. I’m wondering, have you found any common traits amongst these heroes?

TS: Yes. I think just the selflessness and always wanting to put the man or woman next to them first and talk about them more than themselves. And then, in that life-and-death situation, put their lives on the line and sometimes sacrifice their lives for that man or woman beside them, no matter if they’re best friends or if they had only just met, like in the case of Mike and Karol. So I think that willingness to serve and sacrifice not for any particular political reason or cause, but just for the love of our country and what it represents, and freedom and confronting evil, which is what these brave men and women have been doing ever since 9/11. I think that’s the most common trait I’ve seen: selflessness.

AAT: What do you want people to take from the life of Michael Ollis?

TS: That anyone can do incredible things in a very short period of time. Mike was killed at the age of 24. For seven years, he spent every waking moment of his life either deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or training to deploy. He wanted to do what he was doing. And to him, if he could save just one life — even though he saved many more than one in the long run — it was all worth it to him.

Everyone I’ve spoken to says if Mike had the opportunity to do it all over again, he would, even though he lost his life and the opportunity to get married and have children and experience all the things that too many of us take for granted. So I think we have to share his story, and share as many of these stories as we can of this generation and previous generations as well, in order to inspire the next generation when they’re called upon to defend our freedom.

Telling the Stories of The Fallen, Showing Appreciation for Those Who Served

AAT: One final question. Today’s Memorial Day. Do you want to share a word for Gold Star families, whatever’s on your heart?

TS: Absolutely. As I say all the time on The Stream, Gold Star families are our national treasures. Having gotten to know so many, including the Ollis family, over the years, they’ve sacrificed so much for this country. Please say a prayer for them over this Memorial Day weekend and every day. If you have a local veterans cemetery, go visit. Google some of the names and read about their lives and what they did for this country. And share those stories.

If you know anyone in the community who served or who lost a loved one in war, just talk to them and make sure they know that what they sacrificed is important to you. And just keep praying for our Gold Star families, our veterans, and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and those who are still deployed right now, at this very minute, as we speak, at a very uncertain time for the world.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is the author of the soon-to-be published I Have Your Back, the recently released Be Bold, and coauthor of Three Wise MenBrothers Forever8 Seconds of Courage and Fire in My Eyes. Follow him on X @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.

Al Perrotta is The Stream’s Washington bureau chief, coauthor with John Zmirak of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration, and coauthor of the counterterrorism memoir Hostile Intent: Protecting Yourself Against Terrorism.

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