Fred Olson believes service to the nation must be honored.
Since 2009, the retired Army colonel has been devoting his attention to the Honor Flight program that raises money to organize charter trips for World War II veterans to visit the World War II Memorial and other memorials in Washington, D.C., dedicated to their service and sacrifices.
"Our military veterans are truly heroic men and women who saved the world from the Nazism and fascism that threatened us all, then came back and, with no fanfare, built the greatest nation in the world," Olson says. "We Americans are the most fortunate people on earth. We should all be given an opportunity to serve our country for a year or two in some manner so we gain an appreciation of the great country in which we live."
Olson has spent nearly all of his career and his retirement in public service. He graduated in 1971 from the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor of the La Follette School. He was 11 years into his 23-year military career when the Army selected him to attend graduate school and offered a slot at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he had completed a bachelor of science in social work and Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1959. He received his Army Aviator wings in 1960.
"Wisconsin's master's degree in public policy gave me a bit of an advantage in my Army duty assignments at the Pentagon, as director of ROTC at Georgetown University and my assignment as director of the Schools Division at Department of the Army Research and Development Command," Olson says.
Olson had several overseas assignments, including two in Germany and two tours in Vietnam. He also worked at the Pentagon with the chief of staff for operations. His highest award for valor in combat is the Silver Star. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star Medal, each with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Air Medal with 35 Oak Leaf Clusters. His non-combat awards include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal.
Olson became interested in Honor Flight in 2009 when a World War II friend of his made the flight and one of his brothers sponsored a veteran on another flight. After discovering West Central Florida lacked a hub to serve area veterans, Olson started a Tampa Bay chapter, and Honor Flight of West Central Florida was officially recognized in 2010 as a tax-exempt non-profit organization.
"Honor Flight is a great program that provides a daylong trip in tribute to the WWII veterans, with a flight to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials," Olson says. "Each vet is escorted by a volunteer who donates the entire cost of his or her trip, while the veterans' expenses are funded through donations to the organization."
The flights leave from the Pinellas or Tampa airport, depending on which airline provides the best deal at the time, Olson says. Each charter trip costs about $55,000. Several local organizations have stepped up with major support and/or in-kind contributions.
"A major part of the vet's day of recognition is at the airport when they return," Olson says. "Honor Flight organizes a huge celebration with flags, people cheering, welcome signs and lots of hoopla. An active duty general from MacDill Air Force Base has been on hand to greet each vet personally upon return."
When Olson completed his military career, he and his wife of 54 years moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he ran a small business until he started working for Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration. "My graduate school education plus my military experience gave me a significant advantage in my positions with the State of Florida," says Olson, who worked primarily in Medicaid transportation but also as the administrator of Medicaid provider enrollment. He retired in 2001 and moved on to volunteer work, helping to build four homes in Pinellas County through Habitat for Humanity with the help of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
"More than 30,000 WWII vets are in the Tampa Bay area, and there is a sense of urgency to raise funds to fly them as quickly as possible," Olson says. "The average age of the veterans we have flown thus far is 89 plus, with the oldest being 100 years old. More than 20 on our waiting list have already died. We do not have much time to provide these heroic WWII veterans the recognition they deserve."
A version of this article appears in the spring 2012 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.