Two years ago, Gary Johnson decided to sign up for a Badger Honor Flight. The 70-year-old Town of Medina resident said he wanted to experience the program that honors veterans by taking them to Washington D.C. after talking with others who participated. Johnson, who spent two years with the United States Army, took the flight Nov. 2.
“It was a long day but it was really exciting and saw stuff I never would have seen except on TV,” he said of the experience.
Johnson recalled the event, from getting to the airport at 4:30 a.m., arriving in Washington D.C., visiting the various monuments, and the welcome home celebration.
He said one of the highlights of the day was visiting Arlington National Cemetery where the veterans witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and viewing the World War II Memorial.
The veteran remarked how large all of the monuments were, saying it’s difficult to see the grand size of the structures when they are shown on TV. Johnson was impressed by the size of the Vietnam War Memorial; he had seen the traveling exhibit on several occasions but the exhibit was a scaled down version.
Serving as Johnson’s guardian was his son, Mike.
“We have two sons and both of them are very proud of him,” said Johnson’s wife of 46 years, Jean Johnson. “When Gary said he was signing up, (Mike) said ‘Whatever happens, Dad, when you go, I want to be your escort. I will stop what I’m doing, I will take off from my job, I’ll do anything just so I can be there with you.’”
The veteran said it was nice to have Mike serve as his guardian for the day. Johnson said his son had been to the nation’s capital before and had a bit more insight into all the sites.
“Plus, he’s younger and a lot better with the camera and the video in terms of documenting stuff,” the Medina resident said.
Johnson was impressed with the welcome home ceremony.
“They had quite a reception out there,” Gary said. “Everybody got escorted by two National Guard members – it just happened to be the Army’s turn that day – one walks in front of you and one walks in back of you. And everyone had a bag of goodies from the day so the escorts carried the bags for you.”The veteran said it can get a bit confusing during the return reception, describing it as going through a big trough with people on either sides.
“If you start shaking hands with people on this side, you kind of forget to shake hands with the people on the other side,” he said. “If there’s someone you’re looking for, it’s kind of easy to not see them there. … Everybody wants to shake your hand, not only the people in the front row but the people who are two rows back.”
While the welcome home celebration was quite amazing, there was a moment prior to that which Johnson referred to as overwhelming.
In talking with other Badger Honor Flight participants, the Medina resident knew there would be a mail call on the flight home. But Johnson had no idea how much mail he would receive – there were letters and cards from family members, friends, former co-workers, elected officials and school children.
The moment reminded him of what mail call was like when he was serving with the Army overseas.
“It was kind of different because in Vietnam, you might get a letter or two or three a week if the mail got out to the field,” Johnson said. “Ammo and water and food were the priority mail.”
It was at age 19 when the Marshall native was drafted in March of 1969. He said it wasn’t a total surprise when his number was called.
“You know that you’re not getting out of it unless you go to Canada or something like that,” he said. “It’s like an adventure but there are pluses and minuses with the adventure. Never being away from home before, that was kind of an exciting part but then there’s the other side of what comes later.”
The Medina resident attended basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and then Fort Polk, Louisiana for advanced individual training in infantry. Johnson said at the time, infantry was a popular path because there was a high need for people in that role.
Five months after being drafted, Johnson was assigned to be a replacement with the 25th Infantry stationed at Cu Chi, located northwest of Saigon in southern Vietnam. He was assigned to the second of the 22nd, which was a mechanized infantry division.
“We had personnel carriers that we traveled around with when the weather and terrain permitted; otherwise, we were walkers. We did a lot of camping at night – whatever Mother Nature had in mind that day is what we camped in,” he said.
Other times, the unit was providing security at a fire support base and did security for the engineers who would sweep for land mines on the roads or would do bomb assessments.
Johnson earned a Purple Heart for his actions during December of 1969. The division was on a platoon ambush and a lieutenant was leading the small group along the edge of a clearing.
“We saw this cooking fire in the wood line so the lieutenant decided we were going to line up and open up,” the veteran said. “Of course, when you’re laying down fire all of a sudden I felt something hit me in the shoulder and didn’t really know what it was. It was some shrap metal and I didn’t know if it was coming from them or, we had M-79 grenade launchers and if it hit the trees you’d get spatter back so that could have been it. That happened to be the eve of my birthday.
The group’s position was given away so it was necessary for the men to move for the night. The plan was to have the lieutenant lead the group around an area filled with B-52 bomb craters.
“It was already pitch black and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face that night,” he said. “Basically, all you could do was hang on to the guy in front of you and the next guy was hanging on to you.”
Heavy artillery was being shot by the group to clear the way; the veteran recalled how when artillery rounds passed over a person’s head it would make a whistling noise.
“As long as it was whistling it meant it went over you,” he said. “When it stopped – you’re in deep trouble.”
While trying to navigate the terrain in the dark, the noise from the artillery round stopped. Johnson said he either pulled the men on either side of him or yelled at them to get down but the end result was the trio safely in a bomb crater.
“I don’t know how close it was but it was like someone took a bushel basket of dirt and dumped it over your head,” he said.
The newer platoon members had wanted to take off and run, Gary said, but due to the dark conditions, there was a greater chance of being shot.
“No one got hurt except for a little shrapnel,” the veteran said. “It was a trying night but a little shrap metal is nothing compared to what other people had.”
After a year in Vietnam, Johnson spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Carson, Colorado until he was discharged in March of 1971.
“I could have extended my time in Vietnam by 30 days and got an early out, but too many guys didn’t make it the last 30 days,” he said.
The Medina resident said there was a lot of unrest at home when he came back from Vietnam and many veterans were not welcomed home.
Johnson is proud of his service and is a 29-year member of the Marshall American Legion and has been a member of the VFW for just a few less years; he serves as the head of the funeral detail where he helps honor fellow veterans.