Vietnam War Veteran visits war memorial in DC during Honor Flight, keeps stories alive

Sep 23, 2021, 5:21 AM | Updated: 11:57 am

ROY – Stories are often the best way to learn and every exhibit at the Hill Aerospace Museum in Roy has a story to tell.

One man telling those stories has made it his mission to keep them alive.

“I’m a volunteer here. I take people on tours,” said Rocky Olson with a smile.

It’s safe to say Olson knows the story behind the airplanes and helicopters at the museum about as well as anyone.

“There’s no airplane that can fly that fast,” he said while pointing to an aircraft that probably has countless stories.

Of course, Olson also has several stories of his own. If you ask him, he would be happy to share some of them. However, it’s important to note, his stories just might change you.

Rocky Olson

“That’s war, you know?” he said while trying to explain how things were during one of his stories.

Olson was drafted into the United States Army back in 1968, when the Vietnam War was raging.

“I spent all my time living out in the jungle,” said Olson with the kind of look where you know he can still feel what he sees in his memories. “If it rained, that’s the way it was.  And if it was muddy, we just laid in the mud and tried to sleep.”

He spent an entire year slowly moving through the jungle while not knowing what might be just ahead.

“I might go for a week with nothing happening, but then all hell would break loose,” he said.

It was during those terrifying moments when he learned the true bond he shared with his fellow soldiers.

“We were brothers,” said Olson softly. “Sometimes I held them in my lap while they died. I tried to tell them that ‘you’re going to live, you’re okay,’ but I knew that they wouldn’t make it.”

It was also during those moments he knew any one of them could be gone in an instant. Or they could all be gone.

“My guys were sent out to search a little area that had been full of rice paddies but now it’s got elephant grass. And once all 12 of us got in there, they cut loose on us from two sides in an l-shaped ambush, and they cut everybody down except for me. I was the only one that walked out,” said Olson.

Somehow, Olson made it through that jungle and eventually home to Utah.

But the war came with him.

“I was home for five years with PTSD.  I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t tell my family,” said Olson. “When I got married, I didn’t tell my wife. I couldn’t face that talking about it.”

Survivor’s guilt isn’t something you talked about back then.

“Why not me? I felt like I wanted to be there with them, and I felt like I should have been killed, because I don’t want to have to face this,” he said.

Eventually, though, Olson found a way to face it. He told his stories. As many as he could remember. He took the good and the bad and put them in a book.

“Writing the book was good therapy for me. I cried a lot because it brought back memories I had pushed away,” said Olson.

Those memories still come back every single day.

So, when he got the chance to go to Washington DC this past week, thanks to the Utah Honor Flight, he was ready to face them again.

Every veteran has a spot they want to visit on those Honor Flight trips.

The stops include places like the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Iwo Jima Memorial, to name a few.

For Olson, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the only one on his mind.

He brought his adult son Cody on this trip to show him all those names on the wall.

“All these guys have died,” said Olson while looking at the names etched in white on the slate-colored wall. “Can you imagine that? Yeah, the worst part is hearing 33,000 18-year-olds.”

Every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is someone who didn’t make it home alive.

Thousands of living, breathing Americans whose stories were cut short.

“When I get to reach up and touch the names, it’s just a real moving thing for me, to be able to see them and let them know that I am respecting them,” said Olson.

Olson says about 30 of his brothers didn’t make it out of the jungles.

“I think about this daily. I think about Vietnam,” he said.

There’s one name, though, he’s always thinking about.

Olson looked him up in the books near the wall to find what panel he’s on.

It’s one more story he wants to tell.

“He’s from Iowa. Earlywine,” said Olson while looking at the name. “He jumped up and ran up to the helicopter and just before he got to the helicopter there was a big boom, and a cloud of smoke went and Earlywine was dead.”

He was a 19-year-old simply running to get a drink of water because he was thirsty.

It’s just one of many stories history could’ve easily forgot if not for Olson remembering it and telling it.

“Gary Earlywine. He lost his life,” said Olson.

Through all the trauma, pain, and guilt, though, Olson says he has found peace just by telling his story. By telling all their stories.

“Young guys. I was the oldest one in my squad,” he said while looking at more names on the Vietnam Wall. “Some of these guys I held while they died.”

However, he’s keeping them alive simply by talking. He feels it’s one of the few ways others can learn about them.

“I loved these guys. They were my brothers,” said Olson. “And I want them to know that I’m remembering them.”

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Vietnam War Veteran visits war memorial in DC during Honor Flight, keeps stories alive