John Kenneth Olson was supposed to be the one surprising his fellow soldiers as he led intelligence exercises over the weekend at Riverside State Park.
Instead, the 52-year-old Army National Guard chief warrant officer was himself shocked to see two vans filled with his family pull up on Sunday morning.
They were there to see Olson awarded a Bronze Star for his service during the early days of the Iraq war.
The medal is one of the military’s top honors for exceptional service.
The son, husband and father of four suspected that he was going to be awarded the medal over the weekend, but he choked back emotion when he saw his family arrive.
He had just spent the past two days pretending to be an insurgent, harassing and attacking guard troops to prepare them for service in Iraq.
“I feel pretty weak in the knees about this. I just feel a lot of love and support,” Olson said of the simple medal ceremony.
He added that while protecting American forces in Iraq was his top job, he is most proud of the community service he and other soldiers performed there.
“A lot of people think the military is only all about killing. I’ve done more humanitarian service in this uniform – helping people improve their quality of life,” Olson said.
As an example, he recounted a story about soldiers he knew using their own money to help an Iraqi widow replace her roof.
“He’s an American hero,” said Olson’s daughter Heidi Olson.
Col. Bob Hargreaves, commander of the 96th Troop Command, presented the award. Hargreaves praised Olson for his work this past weekend and his “selfless service” in Iraq.
While in Iraq, Olson and his tactical human intelligence teams with the 81st Brigade Combat Team were responsible for collecting intelligence in all of northern Iraq.
In addition to counterintelligence operations and interviewing and screening Iraqis working with United States forces, Olson oversaw criminal investigations.
At first, Olson had just one Arabic interpreter to work with, but he built that up as he located other soldiers who could speak Arabic and help with intelligence operations.
“I had to do a lot of scrounging to find the resources necessary to do the job,” he said.
Olson served four years as an active duty Marine before joining the Army National Guard in the early 1980s. He’s served two overseas tours – the first in Bosnia and the second in Iraq.
He works as a juvenile probation officer in Colville, but is on leave because he’s serving active duty through September, said his current commanding officer, Capt. Brett Rubio.
Olson said he couldn’t have done much in Iraq without the dedication of soldiers he worked with or his family’s support from home.
That’s typical, said his wife, Linda.
“He is truly humble,” she said.
“If there’s any bragging to be done, I have to do it for him.