By Brandon O'ConnorJanuary 10, 2019
WEST POINT, NY -- For more than 400 days in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, Col. William Ostlund refused to let himself cry.
A lieutenant colonel at the time, Ostlund was the battalion commander for Task Force Rock, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Six hours into a 425-day tour in an area partially dubbed both the Valley of Death and the Valley of Fire, the battalion lost its first Soldier.
Hours after he assumed command of the area, Ostlund's Soldiers found themselves in a firefight where their youngest paratrooper was killed. Pvt. Timothy Vimoto, the son of the Brigade Sergeant Major, was the first of 26 Soldiers killed and 143 wounded as they faced nearly daily combat and more than 1,000 contacts with the enemy during their tour.
Through each of the phone calls to the deceased Soldiers' families, sometimes as many as five calls per Soldier, Ostlund held his emotions in check. As he made those calls, other Soldiers under his command were risking their lives in battles of their own, waging the war they were trained to fight and doing the job they had volunteered to perform.
A father to three boys of his own, Ostlund, who led six combat tours during his Army career, would adopt the Soldiers under his command as his sons and daughters.
Standing in an auditorium prior to their tour of duty he'd lay it bare for them and his family, when they were deployed his attention and his duty was to those he was charged with commanding, not his flesh and blood who were safely back home.
"I had a sense of clarity when I deployed of who were the most important people in the world to me and those were the people I was leading. There were no distractions in my head, but it comes at a high cost," Ostlund said. "It was very painful for my wife to be sitting in the front row of the theater not once, but several times when I would say that in a very short period of time I am going to care more about you than I am going to care about these boys right here and my wife."
Since he was 18 years old, Ostlund has worn the Ranger scroll on his arm. His career in the Army has asked him to take lives, direct others to take lives and comfort the families of Soldiers under him who paid the ultimate price themselves.
Through the pain of combat and the impact on his family, Ostlund has been led by the Ranger creed that calls him to never surrender, always be ready, and, "move further, faster and fight harder than any other Soldier."
"I have killed enemies of our country who threatened our way of life-with no remorse. I'm responsible for killing innocents and for that I am sorry," he said. "Morally, I don't take it as a game. I make the comment, 'I am the only one on the blame line here.' I haven't got a pass on the Ten Commandments. There is a day when I've got to reconcile with that."
Ostlund, currently the Director of Military Instruction at the U.S. Military Academy, will retire following a 36-year Army career at the end of February bringing to an end what he refers to as his "decades long passionate affair with the Army." That affair has left scars that Ostlund said he will now spend the second phase of his life atoning for, while at the same time he continues to work to serve the Army and the Soldiers and cadets he worked with in a new way.
"Bill is without a doubt one of the finest officers I ever worked with," retired Adm. William H. McRaven said. "He is incredibly talented, both tactically and strategically. You can always, always count on him in tough times. As my executive officer, he brought all those qualities to the job. He never hesitated to tell me the truth and his advice and council was exactly what I needed when I needed it."
Growing up in the 1970s in the post-Vietnam War era, Ostlund spent his free time reading every book he could about being an infantry Soldier. He originally tried to join the Marines, but when they couldn't guarantee him a spot in the infantry, he walked across the hall and joined the Army.
As an 18-year-old Soldier, Ostlund graduated from Ranger school and joined the 1st Ranger Battalion earning the scroll he has worn on his arm ever since. The day he arrived with the 1st Rangers, the unit jumped into Granada as he waited for them back home.
He served for four years as an enlisted Soldier straight out of high school before switching to the Army National Guard, enrolling in ROTC and pursuing a college degree in order to become a commissioned officer at the advice of his mentors.
On Aug. 1, 1990, he arrived at his first post as a second lieutenant with the 101st Airborne Division, then the world changed. On Aug. 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait and on Aug. 7 Ostlund and the 101st got orders that they would be deploying to the Middle East as part of Desert Storm.
There was no time to prepare, and the unit, which hadn't be deployed since Vietnam, was not ready. The unit deployed to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 11 where they were able to spend a few months training before joining combat.
It marked the second time in his short career when Ostlund arrived at a unit just as it entered into combat. It was those two experiences, one where he watched a trained and ready unit rapidly deploy and the other where he joined an unprepared unit as they deployed into a combat zone, that shaped and left an undeniable mark upon his career.
"Looking back, there are probably times in my career when I should have been able to more properly identify that I have given enough and my unit has trained enough," Ostlund said. "I maintained this level of insecurity based on those two experiences that really kind of drove me to do as much as we could do in the unknown time we had left."
Training and preparing his Soldiers for combat became the hallmark of his career. Unlike the early 1990s where combat was rare and units would go years without seeing it, now Soldiers must constantly be prepared. American forces have been in constant combat throughout the Middle East since 2001 leaving no room for complacency.
Ostlund and his unit's focus on training was put to the test from the start of their 2007-08 deployment to the Kunar Province. After originally being told they would be deployed to Iraq, the unit was given new orders less than two months before departing. They were no longer going to a contested area in Iraq, but instead the most hotly contested area of Afghanistan.
Six hours in, the brigade suffered its first casualty in a battle and for the next 425 days the combat never let up. Battle Company spent the deployment in the Korengal Valley, known as the Valley of Death, Able Company defended the Pech River and Chosen Company found itself in multiple large scale battles including the Battle of Wanat where 13 were killed and 27 were injured.
"Col. Bill Ostlund is the greatest example of leadership I've ever had," Lt. Col. Mathew Myer, who earned a Silver Star as the commander of Chosen Company, said. "His demeanor, work ethic, moral ethical conviction and genuine care for soldiers has been my gold standard. I've done all I can to emulate his approach and his ability to adjust his leadership to benefit those he leads. I also learned the importance of following through as a leader to ensure your unit knows that you stick to your word. As a leader, talk is cheap. Col. Ostlund taught me that your reputation to stick to your word benefits your unit."
With 15 bases spread out over the region in constant combat, Ostlund had to trust the Soldiers under his command and the training they had gone through.
"Ultimately, I commanded the most decorated battalion in the global war with three living Medal of Honor awardees and over 400 other valor awards in that unit," he said. "That is a legacy I am proud of. I am very proud of the men I led and will forever be connected to them."
His focus on training led Ostlund to his seat at West Point where he is in charge of preparing the 4,000 cadets for life in the Army. For 18 months, he worked to reshape the training program to make sure no cadet would enter life as a Soldier unprepared.
"People will opine about the small retention of West Pointers, only 35 or 40 percent of them stay," Ostlund said. "But every day I come to work, that means I interact with 1,600 to 1,800 cadets who are going to spend a whole military career serving their nation and some of them will give their life. That is a level of commitment that people should appreciate when they come here."
Ostlund has served at West Point twice during his 36-year career. He also served with the Rangers on three separate occasions, with the 101st Airborne, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 1st Infantry Division and more.
Maj. Gen. Randy George, current commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said, "In the end, the truth is, if I was going to combat, Bill would be my number one choice as a battle buddy and to share a foxhole with. If my kids were going to combat, I would want them under Bill Ostlund's command. I really think that says it all."
At the end of February, Ostlund will take off his Army uniform for the final time, and rise the next day with a new life ahead of him. He will then have the chance to mourn the Soldiers who sacrificed their lives and time to work with his family to heal the scars of a life divided between them and a commitment to his country. Unlike the Soldiers lost in battle, he will grow old and see his children become men, but those young Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and the tears he has shed in their memory in the years since will stay with him forever.
"I don't think the worst thing in life is to die in combat," Ostlund said. "Sometimes I wonder was that my pinnacle. Was that my time. When we lose a Soldier in combat, they are forever young. We are going to remember them as this young vibrant paratrooper. At the height of their life, that is how they are preserved in history. There are probably worse things than that."