Retired Four-star US Navy Admiral Offers Advice to Students

U.S Navy Adm. Eric Olson salutes after taking over as the eighth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in a ceremony presided over by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Tampa Convention Center. (U.S. Air Force photo)
U.S Navy Adm. Eric Olson salutes after taking over as the eighth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in a ceremony presided over by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Tampa Convention Center. (U.S. Air Force photo)

You could tell from the excitement in his voice and sparkle in his eyes, retired four-star U.S. Navy Admiral Eric Olson enjoyed the hour he spent Wednesday afternoon talking with IPFW Army ROTC and other students in a classroom in Kettler Hall.

Olson, who was on campus to speak Wednesday night as part of the university's Omnibus Lecture Series, chatted up ROTC students about their future plans, joked with the group and offered sincere advice. The opportunity to interact with quality young people is what he misses most after retiring from the U.S. Navy after 38 years of service, he told the approximately 30 students.

Here is some of the advice he offered:

-- "I believe you become the sum total of your experiences," he said. The more experiences you can have and the more challenges you can overcome, the better. "My advice is don't ever shy away from anything."

-- Trust your instincts. "It applies in the military. It applies in everything." When you are responsible for a matter, you are more tuned into it than anyone else. Gather information from all sources and sides, but then you decide. "My approach is to give everyone a voice, but not a vote."

-- Search for the nuances in things. "Everything in life has a nuance." There is always something you will see if you look at it from a different angle.

-- How people handle challenges conveys a lot about them. "Under stress, their real character comes out."

-- Trust your people and show confidence in them. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. However, "failures of integrity and team loyalty are not mistakes. They are conscious acts."

-- Falling in love with a plan or map is dangerous because it may not represent the true situation. As a former colleague used to say, "When the map differs from the terrain, you've got to go with the terrain."

-- Never quit. "If you expect your people to never quit on you, you have to never quit on them. People don't want to line up behind a leader who they don't think will be there at the finish line."

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

In response to questions, Olson offered these thoughts:

-- Women serving in combat roles: "I believe there is a huge opportunity to expand the role of women operationally." During the war in Afghanistan, Olson helped set up Cultural Support Teams, which were teams of women given special military training and equipment and attached to frontline male combat units.

Officials found the women soldiers could do things male soldiers couldn't, such as communicate well with women in the local area, he said. The local women also would approach the women soldiers to pass along details about hidden weapons caches or other important information. When U.S. troops tried to get local women and children to go to safe areas, they would go only if led by a woman U.S. soldier, Olson said.

Military officials scrapped the Cultural Support Team program, however, after two women were killed in the line of duty, Olson said.

-- The increasingly varied roles the U.S. military is asked to play today: In some ways, the U.S. Army of the 1950s and 1960s was better positioned to carry out the duties given it than the army of today, Olson said.

In that Marshall Plan era after World War II, the military had many reserve and national guard units made up of men who were experienced businessmen and professionals. Along with various branches of U.S. government that stepped in, too, the United States managed reconstruction and rebuilding of areas after the combat battle had been won.

Following the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, no government agencies stepped in to rebuild those countries, Olson said. Many U.S. reserve and National Guard units also don't have older, experienced professionals in their ranks to assist with rebuilding efforts. As a result, the U.S. military had to hire private contractors, he said.

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