March 19 marked the eighth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, a little-noticed milestone.
For Lis and Jim Olsen, Jan. 20, 2007, is the date painfully seared into their memory.
That was the day their 28-year-old son, Toby, an Army corporal, was killed in Iraq. Two Army officers in dress uniforms showed up at their door in Heidelberg, Germany, a day later to give them the grim news.
Lis Olsen was on the phone with her mother in Australia at the time.
“I began to scream and my mother said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘Toby’s dead! Toby’s dead!’” the Kaneohe woman recalled Friday, her voice cracking.
The Mililani High graduate was killed along with three other soldiers in Karma in western Iraq when a roadside bomb demolished their Humvee.
The nation has largely moved on and forgotten the war in Iraq. The Olsens can never forget. Don’t want to forget.
“The grief is still there and the loss is there every day, and it will be for the rest of our lives,” Lis Olsen said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t choke up for a moment.”
On Tuesday, the state Legislature, as it has for the past five years, will convene in a joint session to honor 17 service members with Hawaii ties who were killed or died in a war zone, and present their families with the state Medal of Honor. The special session is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the Senate chamber and is open to the public.
State Rep. K. Mark Takai, who organizes the annual recognition, said it “reminds us, constantly, that there are people out there still fighting, No. 1, and there are people back home that are hurting. It puts a face on, and it puts a personality on, what’s happening to so many.”
Those who made the ultimate sacrifice, Toby Olsen included, will be recognized in the ceremony, which in past years has included an announcement of the fallen service member’s name, two tolls of a ship’s bell, and presentation to family or a representative of a koa-framed state Medal of Honor.
Nine families from Hawaii and the mainland, from as far away as Palmyra, N.J., and Jonesboro, La., are expected to attend.
Last year, 28 were recognized. As of Dec. 31, Hawaii had lost 284 service members with ties to the state in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, according to Takai’s office, which has become a kind of communications center for the far-flung kin of fallen soldiers.
Relatives call and “just want to talk from very far away and they just want to know what the weather is like, how everyone is in Hawaii,” Takai said. “They have this affinity with our state because their loved one served here.”
Alaska and New Hampshire have also started presenting state medals of honor, he said.
The family couldn’t make it to Hawaii for the ceremony the year Toby was killed. Jim Olsen, an Army colonel and ophthalmologist, was stationed in Germany. The family moved back with an assignment at Tripler Army Medical Center.
After Mililani High School, Toby Olsen went to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, traveled to Australia and worked as a tattoo artist for a year, and then moved to New Hampshire to be with his girlfriend, his parents said. He wanted to become an art teacher.
It was there that he enlisted in the Army. He was a specialist with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne), out of Fort Richardson, Alaska.
He said goodbye to his parents while on leave in Germany just 13 days before he died.
Lis Olsen is the Army Community Service outreach director and is in charge of its Survivor Outreach Services Center at Fort Shafter. Before her son died, she had helped families prepare for deployment, “but no amount of training, no amount of preparation can prepare you for that,” she said.
The Olsens visit their son’s grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl every week.
There’s no such thing as “closure,” said Lis Olsen, who channels her grief into helping others.
Jim Olsen said “it’s always a bit painful to go” to ceremonies such as the state Medal of Honor recognition because they bring back to the surface all those raw memories, but he added thay it’s “nice to be recognized, nice for your son’s service to be recognized.”