Family of fallen Marine greets his unit's return
This was the day she was waiting for. Longing for. Praying for.
So Kim Olsen rose early Saturday morning to approach it the way she had always intended. She would be there as her son's company arrived home from Afghanistan. She would lift banners. She would wave flags. She would bathe in the joy of their safe return.
That, she knew, is what her boy would have wanted of her.
Flag-draped casket » Nigel Olsen understood the stakes of war. As the plane in which he was riding took off from California, on the first leg of a days-long journey to Afghanistan last fall, the 20-year-old Marine opened a leather-bound journal and began to write.
"Well, it begins at last," he scribbled. "About a half an hour ago, the plane took off. As we left the ground, I wondered if I'll ever see the U.S. again."
Once in country, the shy and soft-spoken warrior sometimes went weeks between phone calls home. In her last conversation with her son, Kim Olsen complained that she didn't want to find out something had gone wrong in a phone call from Germany, where the Army medical center treats military members evacuated from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Her son assured her if anything were to happen she would not find out in a phone call. The Marines, he told her, would come to her.
"And that's exactly what happened," she said.
A few days later her son's body arrived home in a flag-draped casket. A few weeks later, his belongings arrived in four footlockers. Inside, she found books, clothes, his dog tags, a journal and dozens of photographs from his time with Charlie Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
Kim Olsen understood that the homecoming she had hoped for was not to be. And she accepted that, content in a faith that told her that this separation was only temporary.
But still, something was missing.
'Top-notch Marine' » The visits began soon after the funeral. Charlie Company Marines, wounded and sent home to recover, arrived at the Olsen family home in Salem near Payson to share stories.
They told the grieving parents of a young man admired for the meticulous way he had approached his duties, the honest way in which he had lived his life and the selfless way he had served the Corps.
Todd Olsen had long known that he helped raise his son to be a good man. "What we learned," the father said. "Is that he was a top-notch Marine, too."
In the midst of the parents' grief, the admiration of Nigel's fellow Marines was sustaining.
"All we have now is memories," Kim Olsen said. "So their memories are very important to us."
Too much to bear » Regardless of what joys it might bring, however, the homecoming promised to be painful, as well.
"But there's strength in numbers," Kim Olsen said as she prepared to leave her home Saturday morning to pick up three of Nigel's siblings, a niece and a nephew en route to Camp Williams.
In the days before the unit's return, they had called the family of Carlos Aragon, a Charlie Company comrade who had been killed two days before Nigel in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province, to ask whether they wished to join them in welcoming the Marines home.
Aragon's stepfather, Brad Halliday, declined the offer, saying he didn't think he could bear the experience.
"And certainly, we understood that," Todd Olsen said.
'He's not coming home' » The charter plane carrying the Charlie Company Marines had not yet touched down at Salt Lake City International Airport, when the family arrived at the unit's headquarters on a bluff overlooking the southern Salt Lake Valley.
As they waited the Marines' return, they mingled with parents, spouses, sons, daughters and friends who had come in anticipation of happier reunions. They were met with hugs and tears, prayers and gratitude, but also by some who simply did not know who they were or why they were there.
"Would you like a rose to give to your family member?" a woman asked, offering a flower from an orange bucket brimming with buds.
The question was met with an uncomfortable silence, finally broken by Nigel's sister, Stacy Hansen.
"He's not coming home," she said.
Laughter and tears » They took a position on a raised deck, the same place Kim Olsen had stood last summer as she waved goodbye to her son. "This is the last place I saw him alive," she said.
And yet, she said, it felt like the right place to be.
As the Marine's bus finally arrived, the crowd below rushed toward the vehicle, whooping with joy, calling out names. The door hissed open. The warriors rushed into the crowd, crashing into their loved ones. Hugging. Kissing. Sobbing.
Babies were lifted into their fathers' arms. Mothers embraced their sons. There was handshaking and backslapping, laughter and tears.
There was joy.
Kim Olsen watched from above. Eyes watering. Chin trembling.
To help her remember » The first Marine to spot the grieving mother was Nigel Olsen's platoon commander, Mark Empey. He bolted up the stairs and into Kim Olsen's arms.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "Thank you so much."
And then, one by one, dozens upon dozens of Marines lined up to embrace the grieving family, sharing gratitude and telling stories -- and promising more to come.
Olsen made each Marine promise to come and see her again. To help her remember the son she lost. To laugh with her and to grieve with her.
And each promised to do just that.
That, they knew, is what Nigel would have wanted.
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A barbecue fundraiser for the Carlos Aragon and Nigel Olsen Memorial Scholarship Fund is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at the Orem City Park, 300 E. Center St. Aragon and Olsen, both graduates of Mountain View High School in Orem, died within days of one another in Afghanistan last March.
The first of what is expected to be a perpetual series of scholarships was presented by the fallen Marines' parents to Mountain View senior Miriam Cruz on May 17.
The parents of both Marines and dozens of members of the Marines' unit, Charlie Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, will be present.