Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Air Force Senior Airman Daniel J. Johnson

Remember Our Heroes

Air Force Senior Airman Daniel J. Johnson, 23, of Schiller Park, Ill.

SrA Johnson was assigned to 30th Civil Engineer Squadron, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; died Oct. 5, 2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.

A recently married senior airman assigned to Vandenberg Air Force Base was killed and a colleague was injured Tuesday as the pair tried to secure an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan.

Senior Airman Daniel Johnson, 23, who listed his hometown as Schiller Park, Ill., died in the attack, while Tech. Sgt. Robert Butler was injured.

Both men are members of Vandenberg’s 30th Civil Engineer Squadron’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, the military equivalent of a bomb squad.

“Foremost, our hearts and prayers go out to the families of Airman Johnson and Sergeant Butler during this extremely difficult time,” Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, said Wednesday afternoon. “Team Vandenberg is pulling together closely to be there for the Johnson and Butler families and for each other. The outpouring of support from the local community has been tremendous — your thoughts and prayers are very appreciated.”

The pair were trying to dispose of an explosive device west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, but the object detonated before it could be made safe, officials said.

“The work EOD does in protecting people and equipment from the dangers of IEDs and other explosive devices is of critical importance,” Boltz said.

Johnson was pronounced dead at a hospital at Kandahar Air Base.

Citing privacy laws, Vandenberg officials remained mum about Butler’s condition, with Boltz saying “he’s receiving the very best care that’s available anywhere in the Defense Department.” After being taken to Bagram Air Base, Butler is expected to be transported to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.

The EOD technicians — among some 150 Vandenberg airmen deployed overseas, including 60 in Afghanistan — had been assigned in Afghanistan for about a month for what typically is a six-month deployment. “They haven’t been gone very long,” Boltz said.

His older brother Will Johnson said, Dan had just gotten married in June and was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with his wife Kristin, a cancer survivor.

Johnson grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin and was a graduate of Monona Grove High School in Wisconsin. He later moved to Schiller Park to live with his grandmother in order to attend Triton College, where he took classes to be a Paramedic before joining the military.

"This young man was a truly exceptional person," said Johnson's former teacher, Denise Peterson. "He's someone who exemplifies maturity, kindness [and] responsibility. He was a very fun-loving student. A very fun-loving kid, but also mature, responsible, respectful in a way that not all students always are. So he was truly someone you remember, and remember well as a special young man," Johnson was the third oldest of four brothers, friends said.

Johnson called EOD his dream job, and in that role safeguarded countless lives, Boltz said. “He died doing a job he enjoyed while serving a nation he loved,” Boltz said. “He’s a true patriot and hero and that’s how he’ll be remembered.”

EOD team member Staff Sgt. Jason Polk recalled the nickname EOD members gave Johnson. “We actually called him Mustache at one point because it was so horrid,” Polk said. “We had to make him grow it out several times just to prove how bad it was. His family hated it and we loved it.”

Polk, who worked with Johnson during his three years at the base, has deployed to Afghanistan three times and recently returned from a stint there in what he called a difficult environment for EOD members to perform their critical mission.

“The job is very difficult. EOD isn’t what it used to be,” Polk said. “When I first came in it was before all of the activities. These days there’s not enough of us to go around. Unfortunately it catches us sometimes.

“We can’t always win the fight but we’re going to keep on fighting,” Polk added. “Sometimes you just have to make decisions that you don’t like to make in an environment you don’t want to be in, but you do what you have to do. Our mission out there is to save lives. That’s the reason we’re there. That’s the reason we do it.”

In an interview with local media earlier this year, Johnson explained his job after Army EOD members were portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie “The Hurt Locker.” The movie displays a reckless EOD member who often ignored typical safety protocols in leading his team to detonate improvised explosive devices or IEDs. “Safety is one of our biggest things, especially in a deployed environment,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he chose the career field when he enlisted three years ago, noting that his dream job involved playing with robots and blowing stuff up for a living. “I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s fun. I don’t really think about the bad stuff.”

While his hometown is listed as Illinois, Johnson grew up in Wisconsin. Paul Brost, principal of Monona Grove High School in Monona, Wis., told the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper that Johnson graduated from the school in 2005 after four years as a good student and three-sport athlete. Brost says Johnson was on the football, swimming and track teams. He also was editor of the school yearbook and worked on the student newspaper.

While living on the Central Coast, the airman attended South Valley Community Church in Orcutt, where his pastor remembered Johnson as “quiet but confident” and having a sense of humor. “Once he warmed up to you, he was a jokester,” Pastor Kevin Gotchal said. “Just a great guy, a great guy.”

Johnson met his wife, Kristen Harlow, through mutual friends via the church, and Gotchal officiated at their ceremony this summer. The pastor has been in contact with the airman’s wife and her family since they learned Tuesday that he had died. “They’re just numb,” he said. “Still, the reality has not set in yet.”

Gotchal added that Johnson was closest to the explosive when it detonated. Three others in the vehicle survived.

"The one silver lining is all this," Gotchal said, "is that the three other guys riding in the vehicle had children. There are some kids who still have dads because Dan took the brunt of the explosion."

Ed Gaudet says, "We always considered Dan our 4th son and we have 3 sons and we consider him our fourth he spent so much time with us."

Gaudet's son Gerald and Dan were best friends from the 5th grade on, both graduating from Monona Grove High School and going on to serve our country. Gaudet says, "Dan was never looking to be a hero, he was just looking to do his job. He was looking to protect this country, he was looking to do well for his family."

Ed reminiscing over many summer days when the boys would play football in his backyard and swim in the pool. These stories bringing back so many memories the two families and their sons shared, memories they'll forever miss.

Gaudet says, "He called my wife and I a half hour before he left for Afghanistan just to tell us goodbye and that was the last time." The 23-year-old had a long life ahead of him, married just a few months ago, he leaves behind a wife, brothers and so many friends. Gaudet says, "He exudes everything you want in your offspring, he was a good son."

"Sometimes, especially if he wanted something, he'd call us (Gaudet and his wife, Dee) Mom and Dad," Gaudet recalled.

Kristen Harlow Johnson works as a program coordinator with the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department. In 2009, a fundraiser was held in her honor after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, liposarcoma, which attacks the fat cells.

Hundreds of people attended the Oct. 24 fundraiser at Santa Maria Tire to help offset medical expenses for surgery to remove a tumor and six chemotherapy sessions, her parents wrote in a letter to editor in the Santa Maria Times.

Memorial services for the senior airman are being planned but haven’t been finalized, officials said.

This is the first airman assigned to Vandenberg to die in Afghanistan or Iraq, but the base’s second war casualty. Navy Reserve Cmdr. Duane Wolfe, who was killed May 25, 2009, in Iraq, worked as a civilian at Vandenberg. The Los Osos resident had worked 24 years as a civil servant at Vandenberg Air Force Base, most recently as the 30th Mission Support Group deputy commander.

Air Force Senior Airman Daniel J. Johnson was killed in action on 10/5/10.

1 comment:

Jared said...

Can't believe it's been almost a year. When I got that phone call, I was in training for my second tour in Afghanistan. Hard pill to swallow. Miss you Dan! Thank you for giving me the honor of serving with you!