By RON NEWBERRY
Whidbey News Group
When J. Pepper Bryars first began thinking about writing a book about the Iraq War, his motivation was to depict a more accurate portrayal of why he felt Americans were drawn to military service.
“I would look at books written about Iraq, about the military in general, especially films, and what bothered me is they always seemed to paint our soldiers and our marines, our airmen and our sailors, as unwitting participants in the military,” Bryars said. “(As if) they were tricked into joining, they were taken advantage of once they were there, and that they joined the military because they had no other opportunities or they didn’t know any better.
“And that is so very far from the truth.”
In Bryars’ new book, “American Warfighter: Brotherhood, Survival, and Uncommon Valor in Iraq, 2003-2011,” he tells the story of the Iraq War through the experiences of 10 extraordinary U.S. service members who’s devotion to fight for their country is not only genuine, but off the charts.
“I wanted to tell a story about what went right in Iraq,” Bryars said, “and that was what our soldiers, our warfighters, the marines did on the ground. There’s a lot of debate about the decisions to go to war. There’s a lot of debate about the decisions that generals made once we were there and what our politicians decided as we were going through the war. But what is incontrovertible is that the missions that our soldiers and marines were given were executed to near perfection.”
“That’s the story I wanted to tell. So I began to look for examples throughout the war during key periods of the war of soldiers who exemplified that success.”
That research led Bryars to the brave accounts of a U.S. Army Corporal from the 75th Ranger Regiment named Jeremiah Olsen, who grew up in Coupeville.
To identify individuals to focus on in his book, Bryars reviewed service records of military members who received awards for valor so he could zero in on moments during the Iraq War that were pivotal.
Olsen received the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest military decoration for valor, for leading a rescue of two downed Apache helicopter pilots during a firefight in 2003.
It was Olsen’s “remarkable tenacity” during that rescue that caught Bryars’ attention.
“When others would have hesitated, Jeremiah plunged into battle,” Bryars said. “I think that’s why I thought he was such a remarkable man to write about.”
Olsen also was part of a special operations team in Iraq who hunted down high value targets, or HVTs, particularly the “most wanted” dozens whose faces were infamously portrayed on decks of cards that were distributed to coalition forces by the U.S. military.
During one mission, Olsen chased down and nabbed one particularly high-ranking target who was running away from the scene into a field of palm trees, trying to escape capture.
After returning to the base, Olsen was pulled aside and congratulated by individuals he’d never met who said they’d watched the raid from satellite video and saw him tackle who they referred to as a “very bad guy” who was “pretty high up” on the deck of cards.
Bryars, who began his writing career for military newspapers while serving in the Army National Guard, said it took two years to research, interview and write the book and wait for it to make it through the clearance process at the Pentagon.
In the case of Olsen, who is now 38 and serving in the Army National Guard for Connecticut while attending college and living in Springfield, Mass., the process involved a collaboration of phone conversations, texts and emails to produce the finished account.
“The interesting thing about Jeremiah is he was very humble, almost to the point of not wanting to discuss the story,” Bryars said. “Actually, when I spoke with him, he didn’t think it was a big deal what he did over there. He said, ‘Hey, there were hundreds of us over there in my unit and there were thousands of us over there in the Army. I didn’t do anything special. I was just doing my job.’”
The fact that Olsen was part of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, caught his attention. The chapter discusses at length what it took for him to become a Ranger.
“While I was not in any elite unit,” Bryars said, “I know enough to really know that the Rangers are as close as we can get to super soldiers.”
Olsen, who was part of Coupeville High School’s Class of 1995, spent nearly five years in active duty before taking on contracted security work in Iraq. He then got into the National Guard, earned a college degree and is now applying to enter a physician’s assistant program.
He downplays any heroics attributed to him in Iraq. To him, everything was about his unit.
“I mean, it’s not for me,” Olsen said of Bryars’ book. “It just gives a picture of what people who were in that unit were going through. Nothing I did was special. That’s a great group of soldiers. There’s a reason it’s so brutal to get into it. I don’t think I did anything more special than anybody else.”
Olsen said the bond is immense among Rangers, even after a decade from serving together.
When he runs into or gets back in contact with a former Ranger from his battalion, “it’s like a day didn’t pass. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Olsen was in the same area in the mountains of Afghanistan when former NFL star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in April 2004.
Tillman also was part of the 2nd Rangers Battalion who joined the Army’s elite unit after Olsen had already been on a few deployments.
“You could hear the firefight in the distance,” Olsen said.
Olsen said Tillman was “very humble,” was always working out and was built “like a brick.”
He said his sacrifice to his country, turning down fame and fortune to serve, was immeasurable.
Bryars’ book is available through Amazon.