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Commanding General Eric Olson

By Don Chapman

With hot spots around the Pacific and war looming in Iraq, Commanding General Eric Olson and his troops of the 25th Infantry Division are ready to deploy ‘Anytime, Anywhere’

When we woke up that September morning, the world had changed, and the way we look at it. The light of the new dawn was especially harsh for the American military. New war, new alliances of enemies, new tactics, new requirements. Change we must, and it is happening with special urgency for the 25th Infantry Division (Light), headquartered at Schofield Barracks. The official term for this change is “transformation.” Its goal, says Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, is “creating the Army of the future.”

“Transformation is an extremely important initiative for the United States Army,” says Gen. Olson, two stars, Commanding General of the 25th, aka “Tropic Lightning,” and also of the U.S. Army in Hawaii.

He gives credit to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Erik Shinseki, a Kauai native, for “recognizing early on that portions of the Army were too heavy to be deployed rapidly, and that made it kind of inflexible. Other parts of the Army were too light to go anywhere and fight, where we could send them somewhere and ask them to fight in good conscience, because they didn’t have the firepower and protection. That’s at the foundation of transformation — deployable, flexible, lethal and protected forces that are available to a combatant commander when he calls.

“Hawaii is where it’s happening. Decisions still have to be made, some here, some beyond our control, but when all is said and done I am absolutely convinced the 25th Infantry Division will be the only division headquarters with Stryker Brigade Combat Teams available under his command and control for deployment. That will make this division unique. Depending on how the command and control relationships evolve, it’s possible that half of the Army’s Stryker brigades — three of them — could fall under the command of the 25th Infantry Division. One right here, one at Fort Lewis (Wash.), and one in Alaska that for certain operations could be available to the commander of the 25th. Right now we’re trying to think through how we need to reshape headquarters to meet the challenge.

“The types of missions that are envisioned for the Stryker Battalion Combat Team (SBCT) are anything you could see in the Pacific theater. Rapid deployment, immediate action. Not forced entry, but once a foothold has been established the Stryker team will be called in behind, and then called upon to operate in a very decentralized fashion, often at the squad or platoon level, primarily in complex terrain — jungles, mountains, cities, several islands at once. That really sounds like the Pacific theater. I think it’s an understanding of the SBCT that has made Adm. Fargo (Adm. Thomas Fargo, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces, or PACOM) one of the lead proponents for bringing the Strykers on line. On the list of things he’d like to see in the theater, the Stryker Brigade is there. That’s part of what makes this a really exciting time to be here.”

It was only back in 1985 that the 25th reorganized from a traditional infantry to Infantry (Light). The idea then was to make it a more mobile and flexible fighting unit. Indeed they were, participating with valor in the first — and as MidWeek went to press, only — Gulf War, a jungle-fighting unit quickly adapting to the desert. The men and women of the 25th have also served as peacekeepers in Haiti and Bosnia.

But just 16 years after the 25th went Light, the world changed on that sunny morning in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, and suddenly the Army realized it needed to become way more mobile and flexible.

Fit and lean at 52, six feet tall, ramrod posture, pale blue eyes, square jaw. A voice calm, steady, strong. This is what a United States Army general ought to look and sound like. He leads 11,000 soldiers.

“The sound of the war drums makes leadership at once easier and harder,” Gen. Olson confides. “Easier in that it is not hard to capture people’s attention, and get focused on preparation and readiness that is related to a possible warfight. At the same time it gives rise to some anxieties. Soldiers who have not experienced combat — and some who have — begin to have different reactions. Some get so intense, there’s the possibility we’ll make mistakes. Others get concerned about their own safety, and families get concerned about the safety of their loved ones. So when you emphasize to soldiers the significance of the turbulence of our times, you have to strike a balance. You don’t want to get them too revved up, but at the same time you use the potential for combat operations as an incentive to work harder at some of the important things we do.

“In terms of leadership, I look for someone who is serious about the profession, serious enough to have mastered those skills and those techniques that make them capable combat leaders. Both tactical and technical proficiency are very important. When I say a combat leader, I don’t necessarily mean a combat arms officer. A logistician, a transporter is a combat leader. I need leaders who can function in combat regardless of their specialty. I look for leaders who are positive about what they’re doing, who are upbeat, who are willing to see, even in the darkest corner, a ray of light and focus on that instead of anything negative they might find in that darkness. I look for people who care about soldiers, who love soldiers, who know how to motivate soldiers in the right way, and fundamentally who respect what these soldiers are.”

Gen. Olson loves soldiers, and wears his passion on his stars. Several times during an interview with MidWeek in his office at Schofield Barracks — talking about his first hero, his dad; about Vicki, his wife of 30 years; and most of all about his troops and a fallen hero — his voice breaks just a little, throat tightening, and his eyes redden, no tears, just humidity. These moments come and go quickly, and two things are clear: This is a man who is in command of himself and all that surrounds him, and who feels deeply about “the men and women who have raised their hand and sworn that, regardless of the circumstances, they’re willing to risk their lives in defense of the nation.”

“Yes,” he freely says, “I do get emotional about these things.”

No wonder a young soldier says of Gen. Olson, without knowing he’ll be quoted, “He’s good guy.”

The general stays in shape — and in touch — by doing PT (Physical Training) with troops less than half his age.

He was born and raised on Long Island, the eldest of John and Mary Olson’s three sons. “John and Mary, that’s about as American as you can get,” he says. “They met at Purdue University (Indiana), fell in love, moved to New York and my dad got into the banking business. He spent some time in the Navy in World War II, in Naval Air Corps, but did not deploy overseas.

“My dad was one of my heroes. He was a very principled man who was totally committed to bringing us up right. He spent what by nowadays’ standards was an inordinate amount of time with his sons. Every sport I ever played he coached.” His parents visited recently and enjoyed an interisland cruise.

The general includes two high school upperclassmen as heroes as well:
“They were seniors when I was a freshman and became heroes of mine because they went to West Point. And that’s what got me interested in a military career. To see these guys come back from West Point and see how it had changed them, in terms of their demeanor and physical presence, they came back physically tough. And the kinds of stories they told us, I got interested in the challenge of going to West Point. There were other schools that would be challenging and I applied and got accepted, but in terms of challenging men across a wide array of areas, it was West Point that appealed to me. Now it’s a challenge that applies to young men and women.” Once he took the oath of allegiance, Gen. Olson says, he never considered another career.

“I’ve never gone into the ‘what if?’ I have so loved this profession and the people who are in it that I’ve never really considered any alternative.” He wrestled for the Black Knights his freshman year, played lacrosse for four.

“I played lacrosse from seventh grade. It’s a great game, fast, physically demanding. It’s a beautiful game to play.”

He met his wife during his freshman year at West Point, kind of.

“In my plebe year, I had a classmate who showed me a picture of one of his neighbors, so I asked if it would all right if I wrote to her. She was at the State University of New York at Oneanta. We were pen pals before we met. During the summer I went over to my friend’s house and met my future wife. We dated for three years, were engaged my junior year, and married 11 days after graduation.”

That was in 1972. They’ve been married for 30 years and have no children.

“Vicki and I have traveled the road together, kind of a joint Army career,” he says. “She’s been instrumental to any meager successes I’ve had. She loves the Army as much as I do, loves soldiers and families, and has been tremendously supportive, which has not always been easy because we’ve made a lot of moves over the years.”

He spent much of his career with Infantry (Mechanized), which in answer to a question he agrees means “big, cool machines” — armored personnel carriers, mostly the M-113 as well as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He commanded the legendary Grey Wolves, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, later served as Assistant Division Commander (Support) for the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Wurzburg, Germany.
“But the centerpiece of infantry formations remains the infantry soldier, and that’s why the infantry is the place for me, because it’s all about the soldiers. If you don’t have the soldiers, it doesn’t matter (about your machines).”

He is also something of a warrior/academic, although when this term is suggested the general says, “I’m not quite sure how to take that.”

He graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs and returned to West Point as an instructor. He was the Infantry School’s Chief of Course Development, training young officers, and later became Chief of Tactics. His most recent assignment before taking over at Schofield eight months ago was Commandant of Cadets at West Point. As it turns out, moving around a lot is basic training for the commander of the 25th Infantry Division (which really ought to be called Pack Light).

At the moment there are a lot of “circumstances” around the world, and especially around the Pacific Ocean, that could lead Gen. Olson’s troops to risk their lives in defense of the nation and its interests. Korea. China. The Philippines. Indonesia. Malaysia. India and Pakistan. Russia. They could be invited back to Iraq. Then there’s homeland defense.

“Anytime, anywhere, that’s our motto,” Gen. Olson says, “and it captures very well the attitude we need to embrace.

“I cannot predict to you where, in six months, this division and the units and soldiers that make it up will be. We’re all over the place right now. The situation being what it is in Southwest Asia, and how that is developing, it’s not likely we’ll send units over there, but who knows what will develop? There’s a very tense situation in Korea. We have contingency plans that in a severe crisis could bring us over there.

“It could be any number of places. Nobody likes to speculate about these things, but if we were to go into combat operations in Southwest Asia, those who are enemies of our nation, of our people, may see it as an opportunity to initiate something somewhere else. And certainly it doesn’t take too much of an imagination to see some of those contingencies popping up in this region. So we have to be on our guard. Even if we’re not preparing forces to go to Southwest Asia, we have to be preparing forces with the thought that operations in Southwest Asia can have a direct impact on what we do here.

“It is no secret that the tensions on the Korean peninsula are very much at the forefront of the minds of at least two combatant commanders — Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Port, and Adm. Fargo, PACOM. When it comes to Army forces, the 25th Infantry Division is at their disposal for all contingencies.

“I can’t go into specifics about ‘what would happen if …’ but our focus is the Pacific theater, and because tensions are so high in the Pacific theater, we need to keep our focus here. Although Southwest Asia is not out of the question.”

Gen. Olson knows Southwest Asia. During Operation Desert Storm, he commanded the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry (Mechanized) of the 197th Separate Infantry Brigade and served as Task Force Commander. It was his first live combat after 19 years on active duty. Brief though that conflict was, it was intense, the real thing, and tantamount to a post-graduate degree.

“Desert Storm,” he says, “brought home to me more clearly than any other experience I’ve had in the Army the importance of the combined arms fight — the contribution of every soldier and every specialty or branch, artillery, engineers, combat service support, aviators — and the tremendous power they can bring to bear when they are fighting in concert and focusing combat power on seizing an objective. That is the lesson I learned. You can study that academically, and I spent a whole career doing that, and you can train to do that, but until you actually see it happening on the ground in a combat situation, you don’t realize the importance of making the combined arms team come together at the right time on the battlefield at the right place.

“That lesson, I believe wholeheartedly, is going to apply this time around again. I don’t mean to imply that what we seem to be marching up to in Southwest Asia now is going to be a repeat of Desert Storm. But I believe it will be a combined arms fight. It will also be a multi-service fight. And bringing the combined might of all the services together, I think, is once again going to be key to victory — a quick victory, a victory with a minimum of casualties to both American forces and to noncombatants in the theater.”

They say that until you’re actually there, bullets flying, shells exploding, friends dying, you never know how you and your comrades will react. So it was for Gen. Olson.

“But I will tell you,” he says emotionally, “that the soldiers reacted exactly the way I expected them to react — with courage, with focus, with dedication to getting the mission done. I was not surprised by what I saw in Desert Storm. It’s exactly what I had always been told about American soldiers.” Just days after the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in October 1993, he was sent to that volatile place as part of a lessons-learned team, and also participated in several operations until American forces withdrew in 1994.

The general’s map of the world is busy with pins denoting troop deployments.

“We’ve been in a lot of locations,” he says.

“We have soldiers right now in the Philippines, mostly combat service support soldiers, working in Joint Logistics Supply — in support of ongoing operations. I anticipate that we’ll continue to have forces in the Philippines for a while. There are no Army forces out in the jungles walking patrol. But there is a lot of discussion about the nature of the U.S. contribution to operations in the Philippines. Right now that is really up in the air.

“We just sent between a third and a half of the division to Fort Polk, La., the Joint Readiness Training Center, and the soldiers were superb. They fought under weather conditions that were the worst that anybody at the JRTC had ever seen, so cold and wet, and they were tremendous. Positive morale, great spirit, never quit. I heard comments from officials at the JRTC like ‘the best fighting spirit’ they’d ever seen there. That’s because they’re great soldiers; they’re tough. We have tough training areas here, and so they are toughened men and women.

“We are also in Southwest Asia. I don’t have units there, but I do have individual augmentees, both in headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Tampa and forward in Doha (Qatar). I have around 50 soldiers that are on the ground in Afghanistan and Qatar, ready to do whatever it is we get asked to do over there.

“In October we brought back 1,500 soldiers from Bosnia, and again they were superb there. I’m told they were one of the best units they’d ever seen over there. We made gains that had never been accomplished before, in terms of weapons collected and cooperation gained at the local level with the population. We were uniquely suited for that mission because Hawaii, being a multiethnic culture, our soldiers are used to operating in that kind of environment. And this division — I’ve been in the Army 30 years now and this is the most multiracial, multicultural unit I’ve ever seen — they went into that environment and did very, very well.

“And we’ve had folks throughout the Pacific, a series of training exercises, which are extremely important to Adm. Fargo because every time we send soldiers to train with the Ground Self-Defense Force in Japan, or the Army in Australia or Thailand, we form bonds, we reassure, we enhance deterrence in this region. Though these are not war-fighting operations, they’re every bit as important to Adm. Fargo and they have been to his predecessors, so it’s a key part of what we do. And it keeps us really busy. This is the most deployed division I’ve ever served in, we are everywhere all of the time. And I think that’s a real attractive feature for our soldiers. They love being deployed.

“And the defense of installations, soldiers and civilians in Hawaii is an ongoing mission that grows and contracts along with the threat level.”

Although the war in Vietnam would drag on for three years after Gen. Olson graduated West Point, he and his classmates — who had accepted their commissions in 1968 just after the bloody Tet Offensive — were never called. Still, Vietnam remains a formative aspect of his career. “By my junior year it became pretty clear that the graduating classes were not going to go,” he says. “The class of ’70 sent a handful, class of ’71 sent almost none, ’72 didn’t send any.

“But I joined the post-Vietnam Army, that’s for sure. The post-Vietnam Army shaped a lot of us because we decided we were never going to allow lieutenants to come into the Army that we came into. That’s not to say there weren’t good people there. There were some tremendous soldiers who served in the post-Vietnam Army — soldiers, non-commissioned, officers, dedicated patriots who were absolutely fantastic soldiers. But the Army as an institution was suffering. The leadership of the Army at that time showed us the way, and we who were lieutenants and captains, sergeants and first sergeants decided we were going to follow our leaders and set out to fix the Army. It took a long time.”

The fixing continues, not in haste, but in a hurry, and with purpose. In it’s new configuration, the 25th will be a totally different fighting force than it has been.

“Whereas the 25th Infantry Division has had a historic focus on specific contingency operations, really specific, that being Korea, we’ve now branched out and our focus is throughout the Pacific,” he says. “Any contingency for Adm. Fargo where he wants to use Army forces, we’re the folks he comes to. That gives us lots of opportunities to excel throughout the region.

“This is where we’re heading. This is why it’s such an exciting time to be in uniform.”

Four Priorities For The Modern Army

While “transformation” of America’s Army is a priority for Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, it is just one of four. “We don’t rank them,” he says. “They’re all important.

“When I first came here, the leadership of the U.S. Army Hawaii sat down together and tried to decide what our priorities ought to be. We came up with four, and we’ve stayed true to those. Whenever we talk to soldiers about priorities, we talk in these four terms.

“The first priority is that our soldiers and units are trained and ready, that no soldier or no unit would go into harm’s way unprepared.

“Second, very appropriate in this theater, is transformation. Creating the Army of the future.

“Third, and it’s always a priority, is taking care of our great soldiers and the family members that are here. When I first came here, I thought that might not be that much of a challenge — how could you worry about quality of life in Hawaii? And it is a beautiful place to be stationed. But that said, some of the infrastructure here is really pretty old. I was surprised to see some of the barracks we ask soldiers to live in. They’re old barracks. They’re not what I’d like all of our soldiers to be living in.

“The Army has kind of blessed this command, already decided to do two big things in terms of living conditions. One is to do a wholesale renovation of all the barracks, which will continue from now to 2010. We’re also planning residential community initiative. We’re not going to build neighborhoods anymore, we’ll let private contractors do it, and it will involve a lot of local contractors. We’ll renovate existing communities and build new ones — a total of 7,000 homes. It will be one of Army’s biggest programs, about $5 billion. And we know it’s going work because it’s worked at Fort Hood and Fort Carson, and it’s going to be a great quality of life improvement here.

“Fourth is making sure the Army and our soldiers are good members of the community. That’s probably more important here than it is anywhere else I’ve ever been — the sensitive nature of environmental considerations, cultural and historical aspects of the Hawaiian people, the need to respect and preserve artifacts and the attitude toward the land. I wasn’t prepared for that until I got here. But we’ve made that a real priority, because without the support of the local community, we will not be able to accomplish our mission. We need to become a part of this culture, of the communities where we live. So we have soldiers working in schools, doing cleanup projects on a regular basis. I don’t like to brag, but … the Army leads the way. But there’s always more that we can do.

“Related to this, Makua Valley is a very important training area for us, we want to train in Makua, but we want to do it responsibly, and I’m convinced we can. Now we have to run all of the wickets in the Environmental Impact Statement to ensure we can. Then, when that’s all said and done, we can decide how we want to use Makua.”

The Day A Man Became A Hero

Since it was founded on Oct. 1, 1941, the 25th Infantry Division has produced 42 Medal of Honor winners — six in World War II, 14 in Korea, 22 in Vietnam. By happenstance, the day that MidWeek interviewed Maj. Gen. Eric Olson was 36 years to the day after one of those medals was earned near Phu Hoa Dong, Republic of Vietnam. This is the story of 1st Sgt. Maximo Yabes, who on Feb. 26, 1967, was 35.

Yabes was a member of Company A, which was providing security for a land clearing operation. Early in the morning the company suddenly came under intense automatic weapons and mortar fire followed by a battalion-sized assault from three sides.

Penetrating the defensive perimeter, the enemy advanced on the company command post bunker. The command post received increasingly heavy fire and was in danger of being overwhelmed. When several enemy grenades landed within the command post, Yabes shouted a warning and used his body as a shield to protect others in the bunker.

Although painfully wounded by numerous grenade fragments, and despite the vicious enemy fire on the bunker, he remained there to provide covering fire and enable the others in the command group to relocate. When the command group had reached a new position, Yabes moved through a withering hail of enemy fire to another bunker 50 meters away. There he secured a grenade launcher from a fallen comrade and fired point blank into the attacking Viet Cong, stopping further penetration of the perimeter.

Noting two wounded men helpless in the fire-swept area, he moved them to a safer position where they could be given medical treatment. He resumed his accurate and effective fire, killing several enemy soldiers and forcing others to withdraw from the vicinity of the command post.

As the battle continued, he observed an enemy machine gun within the perimeter, which threatened the whole position. On his own, he dashed across the exposed area, assaulted the machine gun, killed the crew, destroyed the weapon, and fell mortally wounded.

MidWeek printed a copy of this story from the division Website for Gen. Olson and ask him to comment.

“Pshew, man, I’d say that’s worth a Medal of Honor,” he said.

“1st Sgt. Yabes reacted exactly the way U.S. Army soldiers have reacted through history. This is a veteran of our division, a Manchu from the 9th Infantry Regiment whom we are proud of. And I would note further that 1st Sgt. Yabes is in good company because the 25th Infantry Division had more Congressional Medal of Honor winners in the United States Army in both Vietnam and Korea than any other unit. I am humbled by the opportunity to be interviewed today on the anniversary of this tremendous act of heroism.

“We have a lot of men and women, and it’s over and over again, who are cut from the same exact cloth, who are heroic day in and day out. They’re not tested the way 1st Sgt. Yabes was, but they do heroic things, and you can go out on the street right here and meet them.”

To read about other heroic Medal of Honor recipients from the 25th, go to www.25idl.army.mil


Posted: March 24, 2003 @ 12:00 AM HST


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