When He Came Home
By Matthew Nojiri
News21 / Syracuse University
The Marine’s family and friends come to this cemetery just outside of town to think about the kid who loved to wrestle, who spent holidays fishing with his father, who had a smile people still remember.
Someone has placed a toy motorbike on his gravestone. As a teenager, the Marine used to race up these Northeastern Washington trails and dart between trees in a town covered with more forest trails than streets.
His grave reads, “Chadwick Ray Olson. June 2, 1988 - August 29, 2009. Forever in our hearts.” On a sunny day, the gravestone reflects a billowing red Marine flag off its glossy surface.
There are also beer cans. Many of them. Keystones and Coors Lights discarded by townspeople after a night of drinking at his grave. They want to remember him for the good things but are also burdened by what Chad Olson did the night he died.
“I’m still angry at him for what he did, and I’ll probably always be angry,” says his younger brother, Nick Olson. “It’s just something that he should have never done.”
On Aug. 29, 2009, after a night of drinking, four months of partying — and more than a year after he had returned from Iraq — Chad Olson murdered his wife, Jessica Armstrong, before committing suicide in his parents’ home in Republic, Wash.
“This case involved two young kids from the area,” says Tom Brown, the county’s deputy prosecutor. “We’ve seen murders, but they usually involve people passing by, people coming through the mountains. In this case, the community watched these two kids grow up. It was just that much more personal.”
A visitor walking through downtown Republic gets a sense that everyone is somehow connected to the tragedy: The woman who greets passers-by in front of her store sends cards to the Olsons; the waitress serving Mexican food at Esther's Restaurant just down the block was one of Armstrong’s close friends; across from Esther’s, Olson’s aunt works at the hardware store.
A year later, this small town of 958 people is still trying to heal, still trying to understand a question that may be an unanswerable one.
What happened to Chad Olson?
Olson left the military under hazy circumstances. People in town – his parents included – aren’t sure about how he was discharged.
He went to two counseling sessions at the Spokane Veterans Outreach Center, but it’s unclear what went on at those sessions. People say he walked away from it. They say someone should have forced him into more intense counseling. They say he could trick counselors into thinking he was fine.
They look to Iraq. It changed him. They rely on Olson’s war stories for some kind of explanation.
Chad’s is not the only such story. There were 52 Marine suicides last year, all by men, and 40 were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Marine statistics. Chad was 21.
“We can’t let our veterans fall through the cracks,” says Matt Kuntz, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Montana. Kuntz has lead a national initiative for more thorough mental-health screening for returning soldiers and veterans after his stepbrother, an Iraq veteran, committed suicide in 2007. “We owe it to them to make sure they get the care they need when they come back.”
What happened to Chad Olson? In a town that takes care of its own, no one seems to know for sure.
WE WERE VERY PROUD
Mike and Mava Olson remember their son for always wanting to be in the military. As a child, he stood outside his bedroom door for an entire day and pretended to guard it from potential intruders. He probably didn’t have the grades to go to college and the Marine Corps offered him steady employment in a town with few other opportunities.
He signed up for the Marines just before the start of his senior year of high school and left for boot camp on June 26, 2006. Through the process, his parents plastered their cars with Marine stickers and collected Marines T-shirts. He had never excelled in school, but Olson took the military’s entrance exam and “scored higher than anybody in there,” his father, Mike Olson, says with pride. The recruiter told him he could practically have any position in the Marines, his parents say.
Olson’s parents were cautiously excited. Yes, there were two wars going on, with about 2,700 military casualties since 2001. Yes, their son was putting himself in danger. Yes, it was tough to let him go. But Chad Olson, the kid from the small town with dozens of friends and that big smile, was leaving for the Marines.
“We tried to talk him out of it,” Mike Olson says. “He was just insistent that he wanted to do that. And then we were very proud … we were just proud that he was fighting for his country.”
Chad Olson was a crew chief aboard a CH-53E helicopter, the most powerful helicopter in the United States military. The helicopter is used to transport personnel and equipment and lift heavy loads. Olson was in charge of the aircraft, inspecting it before missions and providing in-flight maintenance.
His parents spent every day for three years thinking about their son, worrying about him during Marine boot camp, praying for him as he navigated his way through war. They called it “total hell.” Their son was almost 7,000 miles away and they could do nothing to protect him. They felt helpless.
NOTHING BAD EVER HAPPENED
The feeling continued when Chad Olson came home to Republic in April 2009, after three years in the Marine Corps.
War affected him. His parents recall Olson telling them about one of his friends dying in a land mine explosion. Olson had shrapnel scars on his arms from the blast, they say.
His mother wondered what happened to that smile. He came back and cried to her about seeing a 10-year-old Iraqi girl die in front of him. The story has circulated around town as the traumatic moment in his life. Sometimes townspeople say the girl was 5 or 8 or 9 years old. Sometimes she is holding a gun and was shot by a U.S. soldier. Sometimes, Olson is the one who pulled the trigger.
Some say she died in Olson’s arms while he was transporting Iraqi civilians to an aid station. It’s part of how they explain what happened one night last August.
“Living here, growing up, nothing bad ever happened,” Mava Olson says. “There was no death, there was no gunfire. He never saw anything bad like that happen.”
Olson’s post-Iraq life was complicated. He spent almost a year stationed at Miramar Marine base in San Diego and left the military in March 2009 under uncertain conditions.
His family and friends say he was kicked out of the military and spent time in a military jail. They also say Olson had gotten into drugs. He may have had an altercation with another Marine. Even to his family, the details of his release from the Marines remain unclear.
“He wouldn’t tell us exactly what happened and we haven’t been able to find any papers of that in the stuff that he brought home,” Mike Olson says.
He received a court martial for misconduct and was discharged on March 25, 2009, under other than honorable conditions, according to military documents.
Though people in Republic don’t know specifically what happened to Olson in Iraq, they all said the same thing about him when he returned home.
HE WASN’T CHAD
Chad Olson came back different.
“He was down all the time. He would never shave. He wouldn’t do his hair. He always had ratty hair,” his brother Nick says. “He wasn’t Chad.”
He started distancing himself from his family. Before, they would make the three-hour drive to watch motocross races in Spokane, but suddenly Chad didn’t want to go. Nick noticed how the smallest things, like changing the radio station from a song Chad liked, would prompt his brother to threaten to kill him.
“You would say anything and he would get pissed,” Nick Olson says. “He would want to strangle you.”
The Olsons’ next-door neighbor, Les Godfrey, a Vietnam Marine, says he saw Chad Olson after he returned home and “could see the hurt in his eyes.” Godfrey says he can’t explain what he saw, but knew from two tours in Vietnam that Olson needed to talk to someone. When Olson was in high school, Godfrey told him about the benefits of joining the military, from the free college education to the pride that comes from serving the country.
He also knew the potential dangers. Godfrey couldn’t talk about his own experiences in Vietnam for many years. On a Friday afternoon in a house with at least a half-dozen loaded firearms and a police scanner rolling all day, Godfrey wears a shirt saying, “This Vietnam Vet is heavily medicated for your protection.”
During one of their conversations, Godfrey told him, “Chad, if you need to talk, come over. We’ll have a beer, we’ll do whatever. I’ll just listen to you.” Olson said he would, but he never did sit down with Godfrey.
Jessica Armstrong’s roommate, Jessica Shores, said she noticed Olson was staying up all night. During the summer, he’d be sitting in her basement alone in the early-morning hours singing loudly.
“I don’t know. It was just strange to me because I had just never seen him like that,” Shores says. “He would be by himself, which was strange. I understand people being up and staying with friends or something. He would be there by himself, walking around.”
Mava Olson demanded that her son get counseling in June 2009 after he woke her up at 5.a.m., screaming at his girlfriend on the phone.
She had spent three years worrying about her son in Iraq only to realize that he was still in danger at home. She wanted to dismiss Chad’s anger, his daily drinking and his reckless driving as a phase, but she ultimately made him get help.
“I realized at that point that he was very angry,” Mava Olson said. “I said, ‘If you want to live here, you will get counseling. We’ll go to counseling.’ ”
Mava Olson made the three-hour drive with her son for counseling in Spokane. Olson kept telling his parents, “The counselors say I’m fine. They say I’m fine.” His parents said they wanted to push him to keep going to the monthly counseling, but didn’t know how.
“You can’t really manhandle a Marine to get him to do what you want him to do,” Mike Olson says.
Olson went to counseling twice at the Spokane Vet Outreach Center. When asked to discuss Olson’s counseling sessions, representatives from the center could not be reached for comment.
He was doing other things that concerned people. On June 25, 2009, he and three other men broke into a liquor store, snatched a case of whiskey and ran. He was probably facing up to eight months in local jail, said Tom Brown, the county’s deputy prosecutor.
Like Godfrey, Brown’s a Marine. He has a red Marine flag that takes up half his cubicle. Brown understood what it was like to leave the Marines and return to a small town with few opportunities, because he did it himself.
“So much of a Marine is based on being a Marine,” Brown says. “That’s where so much of their self-worth comes from. And suddenly he didn’t have that. He’s back at home. He doesn’t have a job. There are very few job opportunities here. He’s living with his parents again. There must have been a big sense of hopelessness.”
Brown, 42, left the Marines in 1989 and returned to Lebanon, Ore., a “logging and mill community where the mills had shut down.” Brown wanted to tell Olson that it was OK to feel frustrated, to let him know that he could get through this period in his life, to maybe write him a recommendation for a job.
“I essentially let down another Marine because I wasn’t able to help him,” Brown says.
Despite the turmoil in his life, on July 13, 2009, with no announcement or ceremony, Chad Olson got married.
Chad Olson and Jessica Armstrong had known each other during their childhoods because they lived in two neighboring small towns. They started messaging on Myspace and talking on the phone in January 2009 while Olson was still at the Miramar base in San Diego. Armstrong drove Olson home from the airport after his discharge from the Marines.
It was a young love drama. One day they would be happily together at the town bar, the next she would be sending him messages on Myspace accusing him of cheating. She loved him, but their relationship was unstable. He used to try to make her feel guilty for spending time with her friends instead of always being with him, Jessica Shores said.
“If he was sleeping at his house, he would call her all night until four in the morning,” Shores says. “He had to be with her or constantly talking with her. And they hadn’t been together that long. Every relationship is different, but their relationship seemed to be too much for what short time they’d been together.”
After about three months of dating in Republic, they got married at the town courthouse with two of their friends as witnesses. There was no proposal or honeymoon phase, only a ring and a piece of paper. Armstrong and Olson didn’t live together. He lived with his parents, and she lived with Shores.
The whole thing was unplanned. Armstrong had always wanted a big wedding with her family present. They weren’t. Olson’s parents didn’t even know about the marriage until after it happened.
After Armstrong died, her friends kept saying the marriage was nothing more than a certificate.
HOW COULD HE DO THIS?
Jessica Armstrong spent her last day with Shores. That morning, Armstrong told her friend that she “needed to get away,” Shores says. Chad Olson told his wife to call him if she was going out. She ignored him.
Shores and Armstrong spent the day swimming in Curlew Lake. That night, before heading to Madonna’s Bar & Grill, Armstrong took her wedding rings off. She confronted Olson outside the bar, saying she wanted to break up, Shores says.
Shores told Armstrong, “I’m proud of you for staying strong and not giving in and not going back to him because he would lie to her and manipulate her.”
Shores said Olson appeared fine afterwards. She saw him later that night at the bar and said he didn’t seem angry at all.
But Chad Olson was about to have a breakdown. It had been building during his four months back home and manifested itself in one tragic night when he made what his parents would later call the “last and worst” decisions of his life.
Olson called his brother Nick around 1 a.m. that night.
“I did something really bad, Nick. I did something real really bad.”
“Well, what did you do?” his brother asked.
“Well, I killed somebody.”
“Whatever, Chad. Quit lying,” Nick told Chad.
Nick went back to his parents’ home, where Chad was living at the time, to check on his brother. Chad had taken the tip of a knife and glued it into the lock so Nick couldn’t get in.
Later, Nick heard from his friends that his brother was carrying his father’s shotgun around town. Chad Olson was walking around in his underwear. Nick didn’t want to call the police. His brother was already facing jail time for the liquor store incident, and he didn’t want to make matters worse. At 3:50 a.m., he called his mom, who was camping in Montana that weekend., asking to have Chad committed to a mental institution.
His mother said that they would come back in the morning and have him committed. She told Nick to let Chad go to sleep, hoping her older son’s actions were just another post-war tantrum.
“I don’t know why I never called 911,” Nick Olson says. “I didn’t know what I was thinking.”
Around 9 a.m. the next morning, Nick Olson went back to the house and saw blood near the back entrance of the house. There was a pool table pushed against the basement door. On the top-floor, Nick saw a couch blocking the front-door entrance. He called 911 and police officers found two bodies in the basement.
“I didn’t think my brother would do that,” Nick Olson says.
Nick Olson cried as he relayed the news to his other brother, Josh, the oldest of the three. Mike and Mava Olson raced home from Montana. Les Godfrey and Tom Brown knew that they were too late. There was no time left to mentor a fellow Marine.
Jessica Shores went to work and wondered if the rumors about what happened to her best friend were true.
“I remember just crying a lot and saying, ‘How could he do this? How could he do this,’” Shores said. “I was very angry at Chad. I was angry at everything.”
OUR LITTLE COUNSELOR
Jessica Armstrong is buried on the edge of Colville’s Mountain View Cemetery. Her grave sits by itself, in its own row in the corner of the cemetery. The people buried closest to her lived deep into their ’80s.
She was 21 years old. “She brought love and laughter to those she knew,” her grave reads.
She knew all of her friends’ secrets. She was their “little counselor,” Shores said. They called her “Bubbles” because she was always smiling, always helping her friends with their problems. When she died, her friends distributed her things among themselves. Her cowboy boots, her winter jackets, the pictures she had taken. One of her friends keeps a lock of her straight blond hair in a jar.
“It’s been hard. It’s been almost a year,” Shores says. “We almost just believe she’s in Spokane or something.”
Jeff Armstrong doesn’t care about post-traumatic stress disorder or any excuses people make for Chad Olson. He says he knows plenty of disgruntled vets who struggled with war, but they never killed civilians when they came home.
All that matters to him is that Olson killed his daughter and nothing can bring her back.
“I work at the penitentiary and I see murderers and rapists every day,” says Armstrong, a correctional officer in Texas, speaking by telephone. “If he had lived, I would be in jail because I would have killed him myself. That’s my baby girl. He killed my first-born child.”
Olson took away Jeff Armstrong’s chance to continue to build his relationship with his daughter. Jessica’s parents divorced when she was a toddler and her father began visiting her regularly when she was 16.
As they got to know one another, Jeff and Jessica Armstrong would text and talk on the phone. They marveled at how similar they were. She had his nose and his blue eyes, Jeff Armstrong says. They both liked to sleep the same way, with their hands under a pillow, he says.
“She was me and I was her,” he says. “I miss her and I loved having her in my life.”
During his annual visit from Texas in March 2009, Jeff drank beers with his daughter in a Spokane hotel. They had “the time of their life,” he says. In his home, Jeff Armstrong framed a picture of his daughter that he took during his visit. It was the last time he saw her.
Jeff Armstrong says his daughter called him in the early-morning hours two days before she was killed. She said she wanted to leave her husband.
“Ninety percent of people chalk it up to (PTSD),” Jeff Armstrong says of what happened 48 hours later. But he says in Chad’s case, he was simply jealous and didn’t want to lose Jessica. “It wasn’t about him coming back from the war. He walked around for two hours before he realized what he did and killed himself. I have no remorse for him.”
Mike and Mava Olson want to let Armstrong’s family know that they are sorry. They haven’t called Armstrong’s parents, yet. They say they don’t know how to reach them – and probably aren’t ready to. Someday, they do hope to be able to express the guilt they feel that Jessica was dragged into their son’s problems.
“She shouldn’t have been taken and I am just extremely, extremely sorry,” Mava Olson says. “She didn’t deserve that. And I’m just so sorry for them and their loss.”
The sympathy doesn’t mean much to Jeff Armstrong.
“I can’t talk to his parents. I want nothing to do with them,” Jeff Armstrong says. “All I can say is, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, and yes he was a soldier.’ But he killed my daughter.”
At the time of the incident, Armstrong’s parents, who are divorced, were living in Alaska and Texas. Jessica's mother could not be reached for this article.
Mike and Mava Olson hope something can be learned from what happened to their son last year.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
After the murder-suicide, a trauma specialist and a counselor from the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center, went to Republic to answer questions about what happened to Chad Olson and talk about what the community could do in the future to prevent another tragedy.
At the meeting, 46 days after her son killed himself and murdered his wife, Mava Olson received her first pamphlet about post-traumatic stress disorder.
As she read the symptoms, she said all the information “was our son to a T.”
Reckless behavior: Chad Olson was driving too fast and had been involved in the liquor-store incident. Sleeplessness: Chad Olson was staying up all night and sleeping during the day. Isolation: He stopped doing things he used to love, like watching motocross with his family. Drinking: He couldn’t find a job and was drinking almost every day. Depression: Mava Olson wanted to see her son smile, but he “wasn’t smiling anymore.”
Mike Olson said he had no idea what his son was going through and couldn’t figure out how to help him. He doesn’t know if Olson was given a mental health screening after his discharge. He says someone – the Marines, the VA, the Veterans Outreach Center – should have warned the family about his son’s potential for PTSD and given them a number to call for help.
“That would have been,” his voice trails off.
“We might have been able to save him if we had that information,” Olson says.
“But who knows?”
Dr. John Miller, the trauma recovery program coordinator at the Spokane VA Medical Center, visited the town for the meeting to help the community learn the signs of PTSD. There’s a limit to the outreach Veterans Affairs can do, especially in small areas like Republic, he said.
“Hindsight is terrific,” Miller says. “We can look back on something with 20/20 vision and say, ‘Oh, you should of done, or we should of done, or they should of done.’ It didn’t happen. So it really becomes a learning process. Obviously a very tragic learning process, but it becomes a learning process. What do we learn from this?”
Miller says what happened to Chad Olson shows that people can fall through the cracks, even in the closest communities. The Spokane VA is almost than three hours away from Republic. The VA has a counselor who makes weekly visits to town, but the community must help him identify struggling veterans, he said.
“If you know that you have a veteran that’s returning from conflict, try to reach out to that individual, not just as an individual but as part of a community,” Miller says.
THE BLAME CANNOT LAY SOLIDLY IN ONE PLACE
This is the challenge of understanding what happened to Chad Olson. There are no satisfying answers. No one to take all the blame.
His parents look to the VA and military and wonder what more could have been done. After all, the Marines taught their son “how to kill” and then didn’t give them information about how to take care of him. If the military sent a simple pamphlet about returning soldiers’ behavioral patterns to families, that could make a difference, they say.
Dr. Miller and the VA look to the community leaders to help find veterans living almost three hours away, in a rural community where many veterans go to hide and heal on their own. The closest communities, Dr. Miller suggests, can help identify and reach out to struggling veterans and send them on the path to help. The veterans’ organizations, the police, the town chaplains and other members of the community need to share the information they have with each other, Miller says.
“It's not just a VA issue,” he says. “It’s a community issue.”
The community did see changes and it did try. Godfrey, Olson’s next-door neighbor, reached out to him. His former wrestling coach, Jack Hamilton, also told Chad he would be there for him. Even Brown, the deputy prosecutor in charge of Olson’s liquor store case, wanted to mentor him. They knew Olson was struggling, but didn’t know he was on the verge of doing something terrible. They are not counselors.
And then there are those who look only to Chad Olson. Undoubtedly, he had been affected by what he saw in Iraq, and he desperately needed more counseling. But for some people in Republic, nothing can excuse what he did last August.
“I totally put the fact that he killed his wife on him, yes. I do,” says Mike Mannick, the commander of the local American Legion. “I have no problem making that statement.”
Mannick and the American Legion took some criticism last year for not honoring Olson with a military funeral. The Legion could not do its official rifle salute or present Olson’s family with an American flag. Instead, Godfrey and a few others did an unofficial rifle salute. According to the rules, Chad Olson lost the right to have a military funeral when he murdered his wife, Mannick said.
“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and what it boils down to is two young people are dead and that’s wrong on every level, period,” Mannick says. “But what caused that, the blame cannot lay solidly in one place.”
Even without precise answers, the community moves on. Tom Brown wishes he could have done more to help a fellow Marine. Jessica Shores keeps Armstrong’s cowboy boots in her closet and posts pictures of her friend on a corkboard. Nick Olson continues to work at the gold mines with his dad.
Carol Bowe, the loquacious storeowner who says hello to everyone she meets, doesn’t know the Olson family that well, but she knows the pain of losing a child tragically. Almost two decades ago, she lost her son, Tony, in a car accident. The pain, she says, never goes away.
She sends the Olsons cards twice a month, letting them know that they can get through the pain, that soon “they’ll be able to see the sun shine brighter.”
“As time goes by, when you lose a loved one, people forget,” Bowe says. “They tend to put you in the back of their minds, and I didn’t want them to ever think that we had forgotten Chad or them and that’s why I continue to send cards.”
This is the beauty of living in a small town. Mava Olson thought she would have to move from the town she loves. Instead, her family was greeted with hugs, home-cooked dinners and cards.
Mike and Mava Olson say they have realized that their son is never coming back. In their house, they have a wall dedicated to Olson with his Marine portrait and a medal he received for his service in Iraq.
His parents still keep their Marine shirts and bumper stickers. They’re hurting and angry, but they take solace in the fact that their son fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“I still have extreme pride that he went,” Mava Olson says. “Because that’s what he wanted to do. We were very, very proud of him. And I love the Marines. I love all the military, and I just think it’s an honor for people to do that.”