CAMP WILLIAMS, Wis. - In an auditorium inside the headquarters of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Soldiers, family members and friends gathered Jan. 10 to remember a fallen comrade, husband, father and community leader.
Staff Sgt. Todd Olson was a squad leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment when he was wounded by an improvised explosive device during a foot patrol near Samarra, Iraq on Dec. 26, 2004. He died of his injuries the following day at an Army hospital in Tikrit, Iraq - the first Red Arrow Soldier and second Wisconsin National Guard Soldier to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At 36, Olson was one of the older Soldiers in his company - some of the Soldiers he served with were only a few months removed from high school.
But he was also a school board member, a youth football coach, an agricultural loan officer and bank vice president, a husband and a father of four. He was fond of dispensing quotes from the movie "Blazing Saddles."
"Todd was a great leader - he always led from the front," said Peter Ashbeck, Olson's company commander for the deployment. Indeed, Olson was in the "point," or lead position, on the foot patrol at the time of the attack. "A lot of the guys in this room can attest to how he really took the younger guys under his wing - he was looked at as a father figure."
Olson's influence was felt long before he joined the National Guard.
"When you think of Todd, you think of a lot of words - very smart, very wise beyond his years, even as a kid," said Michael Olson, Olson's cousin. "He was like a big brother, not just a cousin. It's amazing how much I learned from the guy.
"You think of leadership, intelligence, how responsible he really was, and when you hear stories from when he was in Charlie Company it really all makes sense," Michael continued. "There was something special about him - he had an impact on a lot of people. I think it's a good day that we're all together and able to remember a hero like that."
Allen Taylor, Olson's brother-in-law and a former 82nd Airborne Soldier, recalled telling Olson during a sendoff party that the family was already proud of him and he did not need to do anything heroic during the deployment.
"'That's not my intent,' he told me. 'But I've got a lot of young Soldiers I've got to take care of,'" Taylor said. "'That's my intent.'"
One of those young Soldiers was Chris Zifko. He said that despite the age difference, he could talk with Olson about anything - though his lack of experience sometimes annoyed the elder noncommissioned officer.
"I was green as green can get, and we'd sit down and talk and joke, and I'd say something stupid and he'd say, 'What are you talking about, man?'" Zifko said. "The very last conversation I had with Todd was when I was walking past him and someone was talking about someone being 'ate-up,'" - a military expression for being mistake-prone - "and he looked at me and said, 'Zifko, you'd know a thing or two about being "ate-up."'"
While some might take offense at the comment, Zifko indicated it was tough but good-natured ribbing from a respected leader - and still potent, years later.
"That sticks with me," Zifko said. "When I'm at work and feeling lazy, that comes back to my mind. He embodies leading. He was the voice for our company - he was always looking out for us, always had a positive attitude, even if it didn't always come across that way."
Olson was described as a straight talker, particularly if blunt language helped his squad, platoon or company.
"Part of being a good leader is being a good follower," Ashbeck said, "and part of being a good follower was occasionally having the candor to say, 'Sir, that's a stupid idea.' He did that whenever he felt he needed to, in his own diplomatic kind of way."
Olson also stepped up when needed. Michael Dosland, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment during that deployment, recalled seeing Olson take charge of his platoon during a mobilization training exercise at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
"Todd was a little nervous - I don't know if it was because I was there or if it was because he was being put in the platoon leader role," Dosland said. "Based on what Pete said, Todd probably wasn't nervous about being in the platoon leadership role - he was accustomed to stepping up and taking that. One thing I took away from that day was I knew we had a capable NCO in Todd because the other NCOs followed him and the Soldiers readily followed him. He had the trust of those Soldiers."
That observation ultimately led Dosland to select Company C to operate out of a patrol base near Samarra, Iraq, about 30 minutes north of Forward Operating Base O'Ryan where the battalion headquarters and Company A were located.
"We had a variety of criteria, and both [Alpha and Charlie] companies stacked up equal except for one thing - the NCO corps," Dosland explained. "We knew that Samarra was going to be a significant mission for Charlie Company, and probably the most dangerous mission the battalion had. We knew it was going to be a small-unit fight - it was going to be squad-level, platoon-level operations for the entire duration. When you get to squad-level and platoon-level, you've got to have good NCOs. We felt the NCO corps for Charlie Company was just a little more experienced.
"I don't want to take anything away from the leadership of Charlie or the leadership of Alpha, but it came down to the NCO corps, and Todd was an important member of that NCO corps," Dosland continued. "So we chose Charlie Company to go to Samarra."
The day Olson was wounded was the same day the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment officially took over its mission at FOB O'Ryan.
"That night I get a call - we've got our first casualty," Dosland recalled. "That is not supposed to happen on your first day."
A few days after his death, the patrol base near Samarra was renamed Patrol Base Olson.
"His loss had a galvanizing effect on the unit," Ashbeck recalled. "The building that we lived in bore his name - it was kind of like he was watching over us. We became more focused, our missions took on more meaning."
"His death sent a shock through our battalion," Dosland added. "It brought everyone together - it brought everybody's game up a little."
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, was the 32nd Brigade deputy commander 10 years ago, and related the difficulty of going to the Olson family twice to inform them that Staff Sgt. Olson had been seriously wounded, and then that he had died.
"Everything that has been spoken about Todd tells me what a phenomenal man he was, what a phenomenal son, father, husband," Anderson said. "We talk about having a legacy. I think, to a person, we all hope we leave an impression on the world. I can tell you, Todd's legacy lives on in the men and women standing in uniform.
"You are always family members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard," Anderson said to the Olson family. "You are always a part of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Todd's legacy is before us, but really, Todd's legacy lives on in the men and women wearing the Red Arrow on their shoulder."
Nancy Olson, Staff Sgt. Olson's widow, said she could see her husband's legacy in her children.
"You see Todd in them every day, in the things they do and say," she said. "The way my sons take care of their children and get involved in their communities and support others is definitely part of who Todd was also. We definitely feel the loss. Todd was the foundation of our family."
Trevor Olson, Todd and Nancy's oldest son, shared the last conversation he had with his father - and in doing so summed up his father's character.
"The last talk I had with my father, we were talking about love," Trevor said. "He said, 'Trevor, you know when you're really in love?' I was baffled by that question. I was 16 years old - I didn't know what to say. [He said] 'Anything in this world that you love, you will put before yourself, whether it is your wife, your country, your family and friends.'"