How Texas Democrat Kim Olson's military career crashed in Iraq
By JONATHAN TILOVE | Austin American-Statesman | Published: July 20, 2018
AUSTIN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — In early 2003, Air Force Col. Kim Olson was assigned to the Pentagon comptroller’s office, looking out for the Air Force budget on Capitol Hill when retired three-star general Jay Garner approached her with an offer.
The Bush administration was preparing to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Garner was its choice to lead the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Garner, who had taken an instant liking to the self-assured Olson, asked her to come with him as his executive officer.
“Although I had seen my share of deployments, this could be the adventure that comes only once in a lifetime,” Olson, one of the first generation of female military pilots and now the Democratic candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner, recalled in her memoir. “Jobs as executive officers to generals are ‘ball busters,’ but executive officers to powerful generals can also influence the military and make it better. General Garner could have had any colonel in the military, but he wanted me. A female assistant to the inner circle of men tasked with rebuilding Iraq. Oh, the difference I could make.”
What followed was a harrowing several months that did not end well for Garner, who was soon replaced; for Iraq, which was descending deeper into disorder; or for Olson, who ended up the target of a contracting investigation that would lead to her retirement two years later, having accepted a reprimand and fine to avoid a potential court-martial.
It was a bitter end to a stellar run.
Ultimately, Olson received an Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment for less serious infractions, that enabled her to keep her full rank and honorable discharge.
Olson has not hidden what happened. She describes it in detail in the final chapters of her 2006 book, “Iraq and Back: Inside the War to Win the Peace,” which is for sale at campaign events.
“As you read her book, you’ll understand, as I do, how we all fed off her energy and drive and what an inspiration she was to the entire team,” Garner wrote in the preface. “As you finish this book, you’ll be angered and incensed, as I am, over her treatment from the service to which she had dedicated her adult life. Treatment based upon fallacious allegations, undocumented evidence, amateur investigation and poor senior leadership.”
“I had 35 years in the Army, and I don’t think in those 35 years I served with anyone better than Kim,” Garner told the American-Statesman. “She’s incredibly intelligent. She’s incredibly quick. She has boundless energy, and she wouldn’t do anything dishonest in her life.
“I don’t know of a finer person than Kim; I really don’t,” Garner said. “And the little problem she got into, I caused that. That was my fault.”
The story of Olson’s “little problem” has received scant attention, even as she has emerged as a spirited challenger to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and, with her military swagger, an inspiring field marshal of sorts for the plethora of female Democratic candidates in Texas this year.
In a recent interview with the American-Statesman, Olson, who retired from the Air Force on May 31, 2005, recounted her experience in Iraq, the investigation that closed out her career, and how, once she had recovered from the episode, it ultimately invigorated her decision to run for public office.
“All these people can judge the hell out of you,” Olson said. “I’m still running for office because I believe that leaders, no matter what’s in your past, that good leaders are needed.
“I was honorably discharged. I retired a full colonel. If they wanted to, they could have docked my rank. They could have given me a dishonorable. So it wasn’t a death, but it was a wound. It was a heavy wound that I’ll live with for the rest of my life.”
An Article 15 punishment is protected information under the Privacy Act and not part of the public record, said Capt. Carrie Volpe, spokeswoman for the secretary of the Air Force. The closest thing to a public record of Olson’s case was an April 2006 front-page story in the Los Angeles Times. It was based on interviews and government documents obtained by T. Christian Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who now works for Pro Publica.
“Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.,” the Los Angeles Times story said.
In her book, Olson wrote of her own misgivings when the Pentagon, rather than providing military security to protect Garner and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance he was attempting to create in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, instead hired a crew of South Africans to do the job.
“It was rumored that several had been assassins for the old apartheid government, while others had worked as mercenaries in distant jungles and deserts," Olson wrote. “Several were said to have been embroiled in bloody battles protecting diamond mines. Some on our team argued they would switch sides to the highest bidder.
“I was glad the South Africans were on our side, but it was such a contrast to working with U.S. men and women motivated by patriotism and the desire to serve a greater good. Our U.S. team believed in the (U.S.) mission. Did the guards? I worried about entrusting the general’s life and, by extension, my life to them. The reality was that we didn’t have a choice. We needed a robust protection plan, and they were who the Pentagon sent.”
Garner agreed to keep the South African guards. They proved utterly loyal and enormously capable.
“This decision to keep all eight men probably saved his life,” Olson wrote about Garner. Olson also wrote about how one of the bodyguards saved her life.
“ ‘The boys not only risked their lives for us, at one point they worked for no pay,” Olson wrote. “They continued to support the U.S. mission in Iraq long after Garner left.”
As Garner was preparing to leave Iraq, he was alarmed to learn that the men protecting him were no longer getting paid.
“We were having so many problems with contracts, with getting money, and most of that was caused by incompetence of what was happening in Washington,” Garner said. He turned, as usual, to Olson.
“She knew money; she knew how all of that worked,” Garner said. “I told Kim, ‘Quit what you’re doing and spend less time with me and go and dig into all of that and get to the bottom of it and let’s solve it.’ ”
Garner also wanted Olson to help the firm the South Africans had formed — Meteoric Tactical Solutions — with the contracting process. He thought they could provide protection for Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was training the Iraqi police, and help Kerik in that training mission, though Kerik ended up lasting only a few months.
After Garner left Iraq in May 2003, Olson worked to help Meteoric win contracts and did other work for the company, according to the Los Angeles Times story, citing Pentagon documents.
The paper reported: “Olson also helped Meteoric draft contract proposals to provide security guards, which the company later won, the Pentagon said. One contract, valued at $600,000, was to provide security for Kerik. A second, worth $1.9 million, was to provide security for trucking convoys operated by KBR. Meteoric won at least one other contract, for nearly $500,000, to provide protection to senior British officials in Iraq.”
But in helping Meteoric, Olson wrote in her book, “we had crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s.”
“There was no steering of contracts,” Olson told the Statesman. “We had a whole contract team that did that; that wasn’t my job.”
When Meteoric asked her to set up a U.S. affiliate to further facilitate winning contracts, she said she checked with the senior ethics lawyer at the Defense Department’s Standard of Conduct Office to see if that was permissible.
Olson wrote that she was told it was OK for her to do that, but, as she recounts the exchange in her book, she was also told, “You have to recuse yourself if the company works with DoD,” and, “If you are compensated, I think you have to get your commander’s approval for a second job.”
The only money she received, Olson said, was to reimburse her for the startup costs she incurred. All other funds were returned to Meteoric.
“I did not profit, nothing, so, I take exception to that,” Olson told the Statesman. “I’m not a war profiteer.”
But Olson said, her precautions notwithstanding, investigators charged that “the perception was you were working for someone else while you were on active duty and you didn’t get permission, and that’s what they hit me on.”
That’s what she ultimately pleaded guilty to, receiving the reprimand and being ordered to pay $3,500. She was prohibited from receiving government contracts for three years.
Garner’s theory is that when he asked Olson to dig into the contracting mess in Iraq, “she uncovered the whole shoddy way contracting was being done … and she was clawing her way to the bottom of that when they unloaded on her.”
Garner defended Olson at the time, to no avail.
“I wrote a letter to the leadership of the Air Force and the Air Force judicial system explaining what happened, and I never got a response from them,” he said.
Roger Cirillo, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, who did not serve with Olson but learned about her role retrospectively, said Olson got in trouble for doing exactly what she was expected to do — improvise in an entirely unpredictable ad hoc situation to get things done, to fix things.
“Kim was one of these all-purpose people who could perform miracles. She was picked because she had that kind of talent,” said Cirillo, who as the book program director for the Association of the U.S. Army arranged for publication of Olson’s book by the Naval Institute Press. “She was a perfect choice to do something that really didn’t have a job description, who could plug into all these holes.”
Getting the South African bodyguards paid and on the job, he said, “was probably just one of a million problems that had to be solved. It just happened to be the grenade that blew up. Out of the big pile of bombs she was dealing with, it’s the one the pin fell out of.”
Cirillo said the Association of the U.S. Army wouldn’t have put its imprimatur on Olson’s book — with its description of the charges against her — if officials there thought she had really done anything venal, and that the generals he consulted with, including a former Army inspector general, believed the case against her was a “nothing burger.”
“It’s what in the Army we used to call pole-vaulting over a mouse turd,” Cirillo said.
“If they had been serious about what she had done, they wouldn’t have let her go,” Cirillo said. “They would have court-martialed her. They would have nailed her to the wall.”
Olson does not know what would have happened if she had refused the Article 15 and demanded a court-martial where she could have fought the charges.
“In retrospect, if I were who I am today, I’d have fought like hell,” she said.
“I had the best lawyer I could find in D.C., Jim Cole,” Olson said. He would go on to serve as deputy attorney general in the Obama administration.
But Olson, who had returned from Iraq gaunt and suffering from post-traumatic stress, said: “In 2005, I just didn’t have that depth. I wouldn’t have survived.
“That’s just the reality. I didn’t have the depth, I didn’t have bandwidth, because Jim Cole and I had been battling them for a year, and at some point you just have to make a choice to live to fight another day, and that was the choice that I made,” Olson said.
“They have all the money in the world. They have all the time in the world. They have all the investigators in the world,” Olson said. “They can hold you and grind you down for years, and no individual has that.
“I’d already been through almost $100,000 — sold the house — in lawyer fees, and then my family was getting ground down,” Olson said.
She sent her family to Texas — her husband is from Mineral Wells, where they now live — while she remained at the Pentagon, working and fighting the charges, which were contained in an August 2004 report that she didn’t see until late October that year.
“Jim, after a year, said, ‘OK, Kim, this is the best you are going to do,” Olson recalled.
Cole advised that she plead guilty to the less serious infractions and be done with it.
“We could go the next step, which is, court-martial me — then, take me out and court-martial me — but then you win but you lose. I lose my family; I lose my soul; I lose everything I’ve worked for. You might lose your name. You might lose your rank,” Olson said.
“At the end of the day, you have a choice, and that was the choice I made based on who I was at the time.”
Olson retired on May 31, 2005.
In May 2007, Olson applied to be chief of human resources for the Dallas school district. She said she answered truthfully when she checked the box “no” when asked if she had ever been asked to resign from a job.
When she was hired, The Dallas Morning News cited the Los Angeles Times story on Olson’s “baggage” but reported that Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas school district, “found Mrs. Olson honest when she was asked about the charges.”
“She was extremely forthright with us, and we’ve done our due diligence on this,” Hinojosa said. “I’m satisfied that there are no integrity issues. She explained it all to my satisfaction.”
Olson also told Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Peters, then commander of the Texas State Guard, all about it when, in retirement, she volunteered with the State Guard for three years.
“In over 50 years (in the military), I’ve run across a lot of folks, and she’s up there in the top 20,” Peters, who lives in Austin, told the Statesman.
In the midst of her own travails, Olson’s last assignment in the Pentagon was with the secretary of the Air Force inspector general, looking into the sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy then drawing headlines. Her section’s assignment was investigating generals and senior civilians.
“That was my job,” Olson said. “I’m interviewing parents. I’m interviewing women who had been raped at the academy. We had 120 rapes at the academy in 10 years — that’s one every month for 10 years — and we never got that right.”
“So it gave me this incredible perspective about how — not that I’m a victim, because I’m never going to be a victim — about how the system came down on those women: ‘Well, it was your fault for drinking; it was your fault for wearing shorts; it was your fault for joining the Air Force; it was your fault for joining the academy,’ ” Olson said.
She hated the job at the time.
“It was like working with toxins every day,” she wrote.
But, in retrospect, she said, “the military fundamentally changed for the better because we were able to get that out and in the open and dealt with that thing.”
And that experience, and what she went through, informed her founding Grace After Fire, a nonprofit devoted to helping female veterans make the transition back into civilian life.
“I didn’t realize how all that heartbreak that last year would play into running that nonprofit,” Olson said. ” It made me empathetic; it made me able to speak truth to power about what women were actually going through; it made me a powerhouse when it came to advocating for women vets. It made me actually more credible, because I had struggled too.”
“At the end you look back and go, ‘All right, I couldn’t have been the leader I was if I had not suffered,’ ” Olson said. “Now, would I have liked not to have gone through all that? Hell, yeah.”
On their farm, Olson and her husband, Kent, grow fruits, vegetables and pecans; keep bees; and restore native grasslands. Her only previous elective experience was winning a seat as a Weatherford school district trustee. But in her run for agriculture commissioner, she has proved the most dynamic speaker of the seven Democratic statewide nonjudicial candidates for state office, from governor to railroad commissioner, and the only one who has as much cash on hand as her Republican opponent.
Olson is running for office with a sense of mission, to rally younger voters and inspire women, and to set an example.
“It isn’t the hits you take in life; it isn’t the Sept. 11s. It’s the next day. It’s what do you do on Sept. 12, what do you do the next day?” Olson said. “My career ends; what do you do the next 25 years of your life? And I think I’d like to be judged not for the hits you take but what you do with them, and you get back up, and if I get back up it means I can be a role model for somebody who’s taken way worse hits than I’ve had to take in life.
“In the end, I mean, that was all administrative — it’s a piece of paper. Is it devastating? Yeah. Is it the way I wanted to end my career? Hell, no, but it happens. So now, what do you do with that, Kim?”
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