Iraq and Back
by Colonel Kim Olson

Naval Institute Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59114-527-1.
Reviewed by Doris Anne Roop-Benner
Posted on 01/04/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

I had the great good fortune to attend a Veterans Day lecture by Colonel Kim Olson at the University of Texas at Dallas. Afterwards, I was invited to meet her. As if hearing Colonel Olson speak was not exciting enough, talking to her in person was electrifying. What a presence!

From the moment I began reading Iraq and Back, I was captivated. I learned in depth about some of the topics she touched on in her speech—and more. Colonel Olson doesn't mince words, she just tells the story. And when you read her words it's like having a conversation with a friend: for example, when she talks about being prepared to go without many luxuries and necessities, but not chocolate. Also, because the book is written from a woman's perspective, we get a sense of the real people of Iraq—the mothers, the children, the shopkeepers, everyday folks.

Colonel Olson's background was in teaching, but her stepfather suggested that she might make a fine military officer. After she joined the Air Force, she found that she desperately wanted to be a jet pilot. She had to compartmentalize her life and emotions. She loves her children, but she also loved to fly—the same kind of conflict between family and work that many women face. Somehow, Kim Olson manages to bridge the apparent contradiction between being an Air Force colonel and mother of 12 and 15 year olds. Her call sign is Jetmom.

When Olson was asked to be part of a team to "rebuild Iraq" as the executive officer to retired General Jay M. Garner (director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance), she was conflicted. She had been an Air Force pilot, above the battle and not involved in the ground war. In the book's foreword, General Garner had this to say about Olson: "She is a strong, articulate, intellectual pioneer with boundless energy—an exemplary officer and marvelous human being who has served and still serves as a role model and mentor to younger women. She was instrumental in forming a staff, developing plans, securing funds, producing a budget, arranging travel, coordinating meetings with diplomats, clerics, politicians, military commanders, and Iraqi leaders—Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. She would be the first person I would pick for my team."

Before she left on this assignment, she was advised by a historian to take composition books with her to record the daily events, a living document that would become the basis for this memoir. I smiled when she told of bossing men around and treating them like children. I creied when she wrote about leaving her husband and children and finding her kids stuffed animals hidden in her bag when she arrived in Iraq with a note to "Hug them when you miss us." I felt good when she stood over an Iraqi who told her she must cover her head and she replied: "I am not in a mosque and I am not a Muslim and military women do not cover." I felt sad when Olson came across an Iraqi woman who was holding the body bag of her child and she just put her arms around her and said "I'm so sorry." She knew that grief was a universal language.

Colonel Olson realized that rebuilding a society requires its entire people, both men and women. Everyone needs to feel they have a voice and can make a difference. On a personal level, she knew this concept all to well. The slow integration of women into the military mirrors that of other predominantly male professions. She feels that women in nontraditional careers should start by unlocking the doors of opportunity and ally themselves with enlightened men who have a strong sense of self and are not threatened by powerful women. She was fortunate to find some good men that helped to further her career.

When Olson won an Exceptional Leadership Award she gave a short but impassioned speech at the Women's Memorial in Washington, DC. "As I look out at this audience tonight, I am once again reminded that it is because of women like you that I get to fly jets, I get to command troops, and I get to wear this military uniform and defend my country. So tonight, it is I who thank you." She had finally balanced work, family, and community and knew that a nurturing style of leadership worked.

I highly recommend this book, not only because it's written by a zealous woman, but because it offers a compelling insight into what the United States faced and is still facing in Iraq.

Colonel Kim Olson was part of the U.S. Air Force's first generation of female pilots, becoming a command pilot with more than 3700 hours of flying time in six different types of aircraft at seven operational and training bases. She led a team of dedicated professionals as the first female KC-135 squadron commander at Fairchild AFB, WA. At the time of her retirement, Olson's experiences in the Pentagon included assignments with the Office Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, and Air Staff. Currently, she travels around the country speaking and lecturing on leadership strategy, political-military insights, and educational issues. Visit her website.

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