After three decades of Army service, New York Army National Guard Chaplain (Col.) Eric Olsen, a Saranac Lake resident and the New York National Guard’s top military chaplain since 2008, is ending his military career.
An Iraq veteran, and an advocate for troops and their families, Olsen retired from the Army National Guard on Sept. 30.
He’s leaving 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.”
A native of Staten Island, 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.
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.
One of those sacred moments Olsen speaks of occurred in Iraq, when an officer 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 recalled. “Together we walked him through that and brought him out the other side. We found his sense of peace and belonging.”
Helping others deal death is part of a chaplain’s job, and he performed that duty many times in his career, Olsen said. Four battalion Soldiers were killed in action during the deployment, and death in the field is different, he stressed.
“If someone dies here, we can grieve,” he said. “If someone dies there, we have to roll right back into the mission.” Though grief is a necessary process, it can go on forever, he stressed.
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.
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.”