By TERRY COLLINS and JASON DEAREN, Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The Iraq War veteran injured during a clash between police and anti-Wall Street protesters this week wasn't taking part in the demonstrations out of economic need.
The 24-year-old Scott Olsen makes a good living as a network engineer and has a nice apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay. And yet, his friends say, he felt so strongly about economic inequality in the United States that he fought for overseas that he slept at a protest camp after work.
"He felt you shouldn't wait until something is affecting you to get out and do something about it," said friend and roommate Keith Shannon, who served with Olsen in Iraq.
It was that feeling that drew him to Oakland on Tuesday night, when the clashes broke out and Olsen's skull was fractured. Fellow veterans said Olsen was struck in the head by a projectile fired by police, although the exact object and who might have been responsible for the injury have not been definitively established.
Now, even as officials investigate exactly where the projectile came from, Olsen has become a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the nation, with Twitter users and protest websites declaring, "We are all Scott Olsen."
In Las Vegas, a few dozen protesters held a vigil for him. A handful of police officers attended, and protesters invited them back for a potluck dinner Thursday night.
"We renewed our vow of nonviolence," organizer Sebring Frehner said.
Another round of vigils were organized for Thursday night, including one in Oakland.
Elsewhere across the United States, officials took steps to close some of the protest camps that have sprung up in opposition to growing economic inequality.
In Nashville, Tenn., officials imposed a curfew, saying conditions at a camp at the state Capitol were worsening. In Providence, R.I., officials told protesters they were violating multiple city laws by camping overnight at a park.
The group Iraq Veterans Against the War blamed police for Olsen's injury. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said officials will investigate whether officers used excessive force. He did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Police have said they responded with tear gas and bean bag rounds only when protesters began throwing bottles and other items at them.
Olsen's condition improved Thursday, with doctors transferring him from the emergency room to an intensive care unit and upgrading his condition to fair.
Dr. Alden Harken, chief surgeon at Alameda County Medical Center, said Olsen was still unable to speak but had improved dramatically since he was hospitalized unconscious with a fractured skull and bruised brain that caused seizures.
By Thursday afternoon, Harken said, Olsen was interacting with his parents, who flew in from Wisconsin in the morning, doing math equations and otherwise showing signs of "high-level cognitive functioning." The doctor said he may require surgery, but that's unlikely.
"He's got a relatively small area of injury and he's got his youth going for him. So both of those are very favorable," Harken said.
Olsen smiled when Mayor Jean Quan stopped by to visit and expressed surprise at all the attention his injury has generated, hospital spokesman Vintage Foster said. The mayor apologized and promised an investigation, according to Foster.
His uncle in Wisconsin told The Associated Press that Olsen's mother was trying to understand what had happened.
"This is obviously a heartbreaker to her," George Nygaard said. "I don't think she understands why he was doing this."
On Tuesday night, Olsen had planned to be at the San Francisco protest, but he changed course after his veterans' group decided to support protesters in Oakland after police cleared an encampment outside City Hall.
"I think it was a last-minute thing," Shannon said.
Joshua Shepherd, 27, a Navy veteran who was standing nearby when Olsen got struck, said he didn't know what hit him. "It was like a war zone," he said.
A video posted on YouTube showed Olsen being carried by other protesters through the tear gas, his face bloodied. People shout at him: "What's your name? What's your name?" Olsen just stares back.
Shepherd said it's a cruel irony that Olsen is fighting an injury in the country that he fought to protect.
People at OPSWAT, the San Francisco security software company where Olsen works, were devastated after learning of his injuries. They described him as a humble, quiet man.
Olsen had been helping to develop security applications for U.S. defense agencies, building on expertise gained while on active duty in Iraq, said Jeff Garon, the company's director of marketing.
Olsen was awarded seven medals while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he left as a lance corporal in November 2009 after serving for four years. One of them was the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
Olsen moved to the Bay Area in July, and quickly found friends in the veterans against the war group.
His tours of duty in Iraq made him more serious, Shannon said.
"He wasn't active in politics before he went in the military, but he became active once he was out ... the experience in the military definitely shaped him," Shannon said.
Dearen reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Garance Burke in San Francisco, Julie Watson in San Diego, Lucas L. Johnson II in Nasvhille, Tenn., and Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas contributed to this report. (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)