(a special thank you to KCTC student photographer Dominic Krupp for photos)
While eating lunch next to retired Admiral Eric Olson, Kenowa Hills High School junior Nick Reardon asked what it was like to command the Navy SEALs team that captured and killed Osama bin Laden. “That’s an incredible accomplishment,” Nick said.
“It was a daily focus for years, so it felt really good when it happened,” Olson said.
But Olson, the first Navy SEAL to reach the rank of 4-star admiral, is humble about the operation that took down the founder of Al Qaeda. As keynote speaker at the inaugural West Michigan Armed Forces Thanksgiving, in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel Ambassador Ballroom, he said he needed to give credit to the troops involved in Pakistan.
“I was not on the ground; the glory belongs to the guys in the field, and they were tremendous on that day,” Olson said. “I had a relatively minor role in preparing them.”
Olson wasn’t the only military member at the luncheon to credit other soldiers past and present. During the grand salute to veterans, 150 high school students conversed with members of the Armed Forces at tables sponsored by local businesses. It was chance for students to talk with them about experiences, opportunities and what serving the country is like.
For Nick, it was an event he will long remember. “What I learned from Admiral Olson is that everything veterans do is not for themselves or the flag, but for the people that surround them and their families, to help people have a better life and defend our country,” Nick said.
Sgt. First Class Ty Sweet talked with Rockford High School junior Florinda Vanderzouwen about his 18 years in the National Guard. He said the military helped him build confidence. “It’s good for students and business members to interact with the military,” Sweet said. “The military is more than what it’s often perceived as.”
Bringing Students and Veterans Together
The event – preceded by a ceremony at Rosa Parks Circle and a bagpipe procession to the hotel – was organized by a trio of business people: Peter Ruppert, CEO of Fusion Education Group; John Irwin, president of Huntington Bank; and Jeff Lambert, president and managing partner for public relations firm Lambert, Edwards & Associates. “We were talking about how we don’t do enough in this community to thank veterans and to educate youth,” Irwin said.
That conversation evolved into reaching out to both groups. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate our military folks and expose that to our high school kids?” Ruppert said. “Usually when you go to a parade or military celebration it’s made up of adults.”
But there’s much for young people to learn from those who’ve served, including about the option of education by way of the military. Said Irwin, “I hope they gain an understanding of the skills that they can learn in the military, that they can be applied to civilian jobs later on.”
Lee High School senior John Vargas, who leaves for the Marine Corps in July, said he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to veterans who were once starting out like he is. “It will help me in the long run to hear their stories and experiences and I will use it in the future when I’m out there.”
Advice from the Admiral
Olson began his storied career as a teenager in Tacoma, Washington. He was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy after high school without much knowledge of the Navy.
“I thought the Naval Academy could provide me a good opportunity and so I took it,” Olson said. “While I was there I learned there were many things in the Navy that intrigued me and I was able, fortunately, to find my way into one of those.”
After the Academy, he became a SEAL, developing strength and tenacity that led to incredible accomplishments. Aside from being commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2007 to 2011, he received a Silver Star for his bravery in the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Somalia more than 20 years ago.
But more than accolades, Olsen likes to talk about the years of service, the day-to-day ups and downs and experiences built over a lifetime.
“The career was much more about the satisfaction you get from solving a wide variety of different problems and helping people become better people; putting balance in their lives, and visiting places and establishing relationships that are quite unusual in some cases,” he said.
He wants students to know the military is a great career pathway. “It’s not all about pushing buttons, dropping bombs, firing artillery, shooting guns,” Olson said. “Some of the best technical training available on Earth is available in the U.S. military.”
But what about that bin Laden operation? What was it like?
Olson was focused on the entire operation. “The actual moment passed very quickly and then we were on to the next item on the checklist,” he said. After bin Laden was killed, there were still forces on the ground. As commander, he had to focus on getting them home safely while many obstacles remained.
“The mission didn’t end when bin Laden was killed,” he said. “The hard part of the mission actually began when bin Laden was killed.”
Armed Forces Thanksgiving