View Full Version : Family marks 25th anniversary of death of Marine from Minnesota

10-21-08, 08:07 AM
Family marks 25th anniversary of death of Marine from Minnesota
By Dave Olson
The Forum of Fargo
TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated:10/20/2008 01:30:59 PM CDT

FARGO, N.D. — Karen Gaudiane will be the first to tell you: Her brother, John Olson, was no saint.

But she'll also tell you that when her brother died in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, 25 years ago this Thursday, he was in the process of turning his life around and those of many of his fellow soldiers.

"He grew up not being such a good guy, you know?" said Gaudiane, referring to Olson, a native of Sabin, Minn., who joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Moorhead High School in 1980.

Gaudiane said her brother, an alcoholic and drug addict by the time he was in his teens, joined the Marines to get some discipline.

"And — by golly — they sure straightened him out," said Gaudiane, who considered her younger brother one of her best friends, which made his death that much harder to bear.

October 1983 was significant in Olson's life for many reasons.

He was enjoying his first year of sobriety in a very long time, and having found the strength to control his addiction, he formed an Alcoholics Anonymous group to help fellow Marines battling their own demons.

Gaudiane figured that when her brother's stint in the Marine Corps was up, he would become a counselor.

But that wasn't to be.

On Oct. 23, 1983, a truck packed with explosives plowed through barbed-wire barriers and into the lobby of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

The subsequent blast killed 241 U.S. service members.

Many died in their sleep when the four-story building collapsed on itself in what has been described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Olson's parents and nine siblings were informed several days later that John was among the missing.

Later still, the Marine Corps confirmed that his remains had been found in the rubble.

After his death, Olson's family received a letter from him that was mailed shortly before the bombing.

"He never complained," Gaudiane said of her brother. In the letter, he shared that he and the other Marines serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon's civil war were becoming increasingly worried.

"At times, they had to crawl around on their bellies," Gaudiane said of the Marines. "They were in this airport, and the enemy, whether it be Hezbollah or whatever, they were shooting down into this airport valley."

After his death, Olson's family learned the U.S. peacekeepers had been kept to strict rules of engagement and the guards at the compound, while armed, were not allowed to keep a round in the chamber of their rifles.

Marines were permitted to fire their guns only if they were certain they were the target of a serious threat.

"They were sitting ducks," said Wendy Lange, Olson's younger sister by three years.

Lange lives just outside Sabin and across the road from the cemetery where John is buried and where her parents, too, were later laid to rest several years ago.

Near one of the entrances to the cemetery is a flagpole the American Legion erected to honor her brother.

Lange recalled receiving letters from Lebanon, notes in which her big brother encouraged her to make better choices than he did when it came to things like alcohol.

Olson served as a chaplain's assistant in the Marine Corps, and Lange believes that had he lived he might have become a minister.

Gaudiane said her brother was a born leader.

"He had just the biggest heart," she said. "He had so many friends and would do anything for anybody. He just got lost somewhere along the line. But he got found, too."

Gaudiane said her brother "did a complete 180" in the Marines.

"He became a good leader instead of a bad leader. Everybody who knew him just admired him so much," she said. "There isn't a day that goes by I don't think about him."

With every passing year, however, the bombing of the Marine barracks fades further from the national consciousness.

"It came up during one of the presidential debates, and I wondered how many people even caught that reference," said Rebecca Moore, who teaches in the political science department at Concordia College.

Moore said that although the bombing had significant implications for the conditions under which the United States is willing to use force, it is typically not taught in schools.

When she mentioned the bombing during a recent class, not a single student knew what she was talking about.

"This was before most of them were born," Moore said.

"It's very sad," said Gaudiane, who makes sure her daughter and her nieces and nephews know who their uncle was and that he died in service to his country.

She remembers clearly the day in 1984 when the American Legion dedicated the flag pole to her brother's memory.

"The air was so still you would not believe it. There was not one ounce of a breeze.

"The pastor came out, and he said a prayer, and as soon as he said 'Amen,' this gust of wind came up and blew the United States flag straight out, beautiful as ever," Gaudiane recalled.

"It sent chills up my spine."