Richard K. Olson
Hometown and residence: Buffalo
Rank: Specialist 5th
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: Enlisted January 1968 – November 1970
Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Army Combat Medic Badge
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Influenced by the “Summer of Love” in 1967, when the words “peace and love” were on the lips of hippies and others, Richard K. Olson realized he wanted nothing to do with killing the enemy in Vietnam. He would rather “try and save lives than destroy them.”
So Olson, who grew up in the Old First Ward, enlisted as an Army medic. He knew that if he waited to be drafted he would lose out on the chance to decide how he would serve. In learning his medical skills, the Army assigned him to a Kansas military hospital. That experience provided him with knowledge about helping soldiers who returned home wounded in the Vietnam War.
Unexpectedly, he also experienced the great hope that abides in human nature.
“Every morning there was this one patient who would play the Young Rascals’ song ‘A Beautiful Morning.’ It would brighten up my day and it was great that a wounded guy could come home and have such a bright outlook on life,” said the 67-year-old Olson.
He was shipped off to Vietnam, where he served with the 9th Infantry Division as a platoon medic, which gave him the chance to save many lives.
“For the first five months I was there, I lived with a platoon that provided perimeter security for a large base, Dong Tam. There were about 25,000 soldiers at the base, and we lived several miles away in the jungle and patrolled at night,” he said.
On one of those patrols, he recalled, a friend walking behind him said, “Doc, why don’t we trade places?”
Olson, third in line from the point man, agreed.
“About 100 feet farther down the rice paddy dike we were on, my friend stepped on a grenade that probably had my name on it, and he was seriously wounded. We called in a medevac and he was flown to the base hospital. From there we lost contact with him.”
For decades, Olson wondered what became of the soldier who had taken his place in line.
“Another friend years later hired somebody to find him. He lived in Washington State and we reached out to him, but we got no response.”
Olson says he understands the former soldier’s silence.
“He was wounded and his experience of war was far different than mine,” he said.
Olson added that he remains ever grateful to that soldier and as a tribute, wrote a poem in his honor. Here are the concluding lines from “Night Patrol.”
“That war, I wonder, as I lie down on the couch, looking for cover, looking for the covers, and trying to circle my wagons, ‘What in hell was it ever fought for?’
“But my tongue, it cannot speak,
“My thoughts cannot be spoken,
“I close my eyes and try to sleep,
“Before the morning light invades the room,
“Before somebody else begins to scream.”
He says the line “What in hell was it ever fought for?” has followed him for more than 45 years, and he has yet to get an acceptable answer.
And while Olson was never physically wounded, he says he suffered for years from post-traumatic stress disorder and refused to talk about his war experiences. But when the first Gulf War started in 1990, he said it was time to speak and write.
“I started thinking about other young Americans going over and getting caught in war. That’s when I started talking about the war and writing poems about Vietnam.”
At the time, in the middle of his civilian career as a janitor at Williamsville North High School, classroom doors opened to him in an unusual way. Learning of his new-found willingness to discuss the Vietnam War, teachers often invited him to share his war experiences with juniors and seniors.
And all these years later, Olson continues to speak and write poems. In fact, he is set to read some of them at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Center for Inquiry, 1310 Sweet Home Road, Amherst.
What makes this upcoming reading, which is open to the public, all the more sweeter, he says, is that one of his Army buddies, Jim Damme, and his wife, Bonna, California residents, are planning to attend.
Olson says he will read his poetry to pay tribute to all of the soldiers he and Damme had the privilege to know.