After 20 years in the military, I cannot help but think back about the diverse experiences, people, places, close calls and feelings Ive had along the way. There are quite a few themes weaved throughout the period of my military service with many highs and a few lows. Not surprisingly, my memories related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most vivid. Many of my experiences are shared by countless others in the military, but yet they still seem uniquely mine.
By JOHN JOHNSON
Special to The Star
From my 20s, I remember a peacetime Army of the 1990s. In that era, I remember forest green fatigues, or battle dress uniforms that had to be starched stiff to the point where they could almost stand on their own and black boots that were shined daily to a mirrors image. I remember training, particularly a parachute training incident near the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico that scared the living daylights out of me when my parachute partially collapsed in midair only to reopen shortly before I hit the ground, leaving me in a bit of a heap. Then there was an obstacle course at Fort Benning, Ga. on an icy, wet and cold January morning that, to this day, I still feel lucky to have survived.
In my 30s, I remember where I was on the day the twin towers came down in New York City on 9/11. I remember the great Americans who later met us at the airport in Bangor, Maine to say goodbye and wish us Godspeed as we traveled to the war zone. I remember the crowds at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport who welcomed us home with hugs and flags waving. I remember where I was when I learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
In Iraq, I remember seeing an old friend in Baghdad that I knew from an Army school only to learn a few weeks later that he had died in a helicopter crash near Mosul. Similarly, I happened upon an old colleague from Korea once near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and learned that later that same week he had manned a guard tower to fight off an enemy attack and was subsequently awarded a Bronze Star for valor. I saw a friend cope with anxiety and, ultimately, take his own life. I have often wondered what, if anything, I could have done differently to change this course.
I remember a rocket attack in Iraq and then running for cover. Not knowing where the attack was coming from, the thought in my mind at that moment is as clear today as it was on that day get to cover because your children need you to make it home.
If life were a book, mine would be about half finished and the remaining chapters look fairly promising. However, I hope we will not forget the young men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose book had only just begun when it was closed for the last time. I think some wars must be fought. Still, I understand better now, in my 40s, just how costly wars really are.
While they were foreign to me once, I have come to very much appreciate the other military services. In Iraq, I saw how the Air Force supported soldiers on the ground; life saving support in some instances. I also remember seeing, with no small measure of emotion, the Air Force C-17 transport aircraft at the Baghdad International Airport that would take me out of Iraq for the last time. I saw Navy personnel on the ground in Baghdad at the headquarters and serving in the field on advisory teams. In Afghanistan, I worked with the Marines in Helmand Province and saw firsthand that they are every bit as tough as their reputation would suggest.
On the home front, I saw my wife and many other spouses courageously pick up the slack when soldiers were deployed and make sure everything ran smoothly, or as smoothly as possible. I remember missing birthdays and holidays. It is an understatement to be sure, but being separated from ones family is hard. I am extremely thankful for a loving wife and a caring mother for our children. Over the years, people have often thanked me for my service and Im grateful to them for that. However, Ive often thought, and sometimes said, that it is my wifes service that deserves the greater recognition and appreciation.
I remember the permanent changes of station, moves, 11 of them in all. Like most military families, I remember the household goods inventories on the front end and the broken furniture on the back end. But, more importantly, I remember saying goodbye to old friends, keeping in touch after we moved, and running into a few again on another assignment. I remember seeing my children having to say goodbye to their friends and that has not been easy. Fortunately, new duty stations offer opportunities to make new friendships.
All in all, and in spite of the ups and downs, I would not have had it any other way. I have a love for the Army, the utmost respect for the other military services, an endless admiration for military spouses, and a greater appreciation for life, country and family. Its been an amazing 20 years. Now to write the remaining chapters.
Army Lt. Col. John Johnson is a 1988 graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park. He has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea and Germany in addition to multiple assignments in the U.S. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.