Through the Fire, Finding Peace: NY Army National Guard Chaplain Preaches "The New Normal" for Retur
September 30, 2013
LATHAM, N.Y. -- Though he's spent thirty years serving Soldiers and their loved ones in life and death, the last decade has been a period of great realization -- and revelation -- for New York Army National Guard Chaplain (Colonel) Eric Olsen.
Olsen, who's retiring from the Army National Guard on Sept. 30, stressed that while chaplains' duties involve helping others deal with death, the grieving process never truly ends.
"That grief process goes on forever," said Olsen, an Iraq veteran and resident of Saranac Lake, N.Y.
Though he'd helped others deal with death many times in his career, his tour in Iraq and experiences afterward inspired his renewed outlook on grief and recovery, and informed his efforts to help Soldiers to reintegrate after deployment, Olsen said.
A native of Staten Island, N.Y., Olsen felt the call to ministry when he was attending Wagner College, and the call to Army chaplaincy when he was attending the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. He joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as a chaplain candidate in 1983.
He was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988, and became the minister at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Saranac Lake. He became an active-duty Army chaplain in 1992, and served with units such as the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division in places like South Carolina, Germany, Egypt and Fort Drum, N.Y.
He joined the New York Army National Guard in 1999, served extensively in New York City following the 9-11 attacks, and volunteered to deploy to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 108th Infantry in 2003. He survived an IED attack, and was awarded the Combat Action Badge.
However, four battalion Soldiers, including Pvt. Nathan Brown, were killed in action during the deployment, Olsen said. Chaplains are integral to grieving, he explained, citing the Army chaplains' motto, "Nurture the Living, Care for the Wounded and Honor the Fallen."
"We broker death all the time," he said. "Everybody's life ends. Chaplains help people with that process."
But while deployed units honor fallen troops with things like "empty boots" ceremonies, combat duty leaves little time to grieve, he explained.
"Death in the field is different," he reflected. "If someone dies here, we can grieve. If someone dies there, we have to roll right back into the mission. Salute the boots, then it's back into the truck."
That was the case with Brown, Olsen said. A native of Glens Falls, N.Y., Brown was killed in a firefight on the outskirts of Samarra on Easter Sunday, 2004.
"We didn't have time to grieve that," Olsen recalled. "Some of the kids haven't gone through the whole process."
When faced with combat, Soldiers choose to ride their fear, aggression or anger, Olsen said. He was no different, he added.
"I came home angry," he said. "Most of us came home riding anger."
He was angry about the deaths and about missing things, like his family, he explained. He was also less patient -- unwilling to suffer small details, he added.
But later he came to appreciate the value of the experience, and with that came new wisdom, he recalled.
"It forced me to Soldier, and to admire the men and women I've served with much more," he said. He also became a better father, learned to value life more, and realized that grieving is a conscious, ongoing task, he added.
After serving as the 42nd Infantry Division chaplain, Olsen became chaplain of the New York Army National Guard in 2008 -- holding that position as a full-time officer. The global war on terror and the Soldiers' needs created a need for a full-time chaplain, Olsen explained.
"Moving from a strategic force to an operational force has put a strain on our Soldiers and their families," Olsen said.
Olsen helped establish the New York Army National Guard's Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program, which helps service members and their families readjust after a deployment. What's more, he began using the phrase "the new normal" to help troops and their families adjust after a deployment.
Olsen said that saying describes the new world -- free of past expectations -- that Soldiers and their loved ones should strive live in after a deployment. Oftentimes Soldiers expect everything will be the same when they return from a tour of duty overseas, he explained.
"You have to live in the world as you find it," Olsen said. "You have to make peace with yourself."
He's leaving the National Guard with no regrets -- just gratitude for the Soldiers with whom he's shared "thousands and thousands of sacred moments," Olsen said.
"I'm sure I'll miss the great men and women I've had the chance to work with," Olsen reflected. "I've been taught so much by good men and women. You can't buy that knowledge. I've been blessed."
One of those sacred moments Olsen speaks of occurred in Iraq, when an officer from another unit knocked on the door of his quarters around two in the morning, seeking comfort. The officer had survived two IED attacks in one day, Olsen recalled.
"He was scared to death," Olsen said. "Together we walked him through that and brought him out the other side. We found his sense of peace and belonging." He and the officer still stay in touch, he said.
Olsen's awards include the Meritorious Service Medal, the Bronze Star, the Iraq Campaign Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Combat Action Badge, and the New York State Defense of Liberty Medal for service after 9/11.
He plans to return to prison chaplaincy following his retirement, Olsen said. The respective roles are similar, insofar they involve people are separated from their families in difficult circumstances, he explained.
"Working with men and women in the Army, you have people with goals and values and honor," he said. "in prison, you're helping people find those things."
Olsen also plans to spend more time with his wife and his sons, Garth and Evan. This is the "perfect time to retire," he said.
"I think if I don't go now, I'll miss opportunities with my kids," Olsen said. "I think I'm just ready."
Just the same, Army chaplaincy is facing its own "new normal," he stressed. Chaplains have to come to terms with a changing culture, and bring a sense of peace to a violent culture, Olsen said.
That challenge may not be as steep in the New York National Guard, where the chaplaincy is diverse, he said.
"We're very open, eclectic, and ecumenical," Olsen said.
Olsen encouraged Soldiers to pause and strive to find their inner voice. This voice, he said, is a conscience, muse and inspiration which can also help Soldiers get a sense of who God is to them, he explained.
"They need it," he said. "That's where real strength comes from. Along with that, you find your sense of belonging, community and, ultimately, a sense of intimacy."