Ed Olesh III
After four deployments and more than 400 combat missions, Ed Olesh no longer wanted to gamble with his life.
At 18, Olesh left the family farm in Ohiopyle, Pa., for basic training. He joined the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the military’s most elite infantry units.
Throughout the next six years, his roles varied – from grenade launcher to machine gunner to demolitions expert.
Then, while stationed in Seattle, Wash., with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Olesh would take on a new role in his personal life – husband.
“I wanted to start a family,” he said. “One of my buddies lost his life on his 14th deployment. He had four daughters. I didn’t want Erienne [his wife] to go through that. And she didn’t want to have kids until I got out.”
Olesh had no idea what he desired professionally. That is, until he went fishing one day.
“A man came up to me and asked, ‘Can I take some blood from your fish?’” Olesh said. “I’m like, ‘What? Um. Sure, OK.’ He says he’s a fisheries biologist for the state of Washington. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can get a job studying fish?’
“I went home and knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to college and be a fish biologist.”
That chance encounter led Olesh to WVU. In 2016, he earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries resources and minored in environmental economics and conservational biology while making the Dean’s List each semester. Meanwhile, his wife acquired her PhD in neuroscience at WVU and is now assistant director of technology commercialization at the Health Sciences Innovation Center. They have a son.
Today, Olesh is nearing the finish line for his master’s degree. His research examines the diets of smallmouth bass in West Virginia and how those diets differ in various water sources. Someday he hopes to teach at a liberal arts college.
It’s been quite a transition. After dodging machine gun fire and roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, he struggled to adapt to a life not so engulfed in adrenaline and violence.
As Olesh puts it, it’s going from a “warrior culture” to a “campus culture.”
“You go through separation anxiety and survivor’s guilt,” Olesh said. “Those feelings never get worked out by the time you’re in college. Then you’re in school after being in an organized, disciplined environment. You have kids whipping out their phones in school and talking on them. I couldn’t help myself. The E-5 [rank of sergeant] would come out.”
If you lined up 20 random college students and had to guess the veteran, you’d pick Olesh.
He’s an unabashed patriot. Hulking and assertive, Olesh is bearded, covered in tattoos and can probably bench press your body weight. His choice of attire for this interview: A black American flag T-shirt and a pair of red, white and blue Converse All Stars.
Olesh admits that he didn’t find his groove at WVU until his sophomore year. On his first day on campus, he took offense to a fellow freshman who answered his phone during an orientation presentation. Olesh was pulled aside by Dennis K. Smith, then an associate dean of academic affairs and professor of agribusiness management and rural development.
“Are you a vet?” Smith asked Olesh.
“Come with me.”
Smith helped Olesh register for the classes he needed and told him, “While most students may need that [a lecturing on phone use and manners], I wouldn’t suggest you do that a whole lot.”
That interaction with Smith was the beginning of what Olesh describes as riding up an escalator on a journey to maturity.
“At WVU, I started listening to other people and other viewpoints,” he said. “By my senior year, I went from Republican to Libertarian to left-leaning to ‘Why do I need to fall into a category?’ I’m just going to think for myself. That’s what college helped me do.”
Olesh hopes to share his thoughts and experiences with future student-veterans so that they can embark on a smoother path. He is president of the Veterans of WVU student group.
For Welcome Week this year, Olesh helped organize a first-ever retreat for student-veterans to inform them of services available to them and to introduce them to campus.
Olesh also wants to see more campus assistance regarding GI benefits and veterans’ issues.
“So many times vets sign up for classes and halfway through the semester, they stop getting benefits,” he said. “We really need more faculty members who are dedicated to that.”
Most of all, Olesh is determined to change the perceptions others may have of veterans.
“People might think, ‘You’re a vet. You must love Trump,’” Olesh said. “Nope. That’s not the case. Or they think we hate Middle Eastern people.
“We had interpreters from those countries that risked more than any vet that was over there. Their families were in danger because they helped us. There’s a huge amount of respect for them.
“In reality, you’re constantly learning in the military and meeting new and different people. You don’t think about the race, religion or sexual orientation of the person next to you. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, but diversity grows community.”