Communities Embrace Texas Family After Tragedy

By Toni Maltagliati
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6, 2007 - Troops in Iraq know too well how quickly life can take a wrong turn. An outpouring of goodwill and support from the public is helping one wounded soldier and his wife cope with a tragic loss.

For Army Spc. John A. Johnson, the fifth improvised-explosive-device blast he experienced in Iraq, in August, was the one that caused traumatic brain injury that landed him at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for treatment.

Two months later, when he was being discharged, his wife and three children left El Paso and headed east to meet him. Then fate took a deadly turn.

Driving in the Dallas area Oct. 13, the Johnson family vehicle crashed and rolled. Two-year-old Logan and 5-year-old Ashley perished in the wreck. Tyler, age 9, was critically injured with brain injuries that left him comatose at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, where he later died. Johnson's wife, Monalisa, was in the intensive-care unit of an adjacent facility, Parkland Hospital, with back injuries.

With electric speed, the military and civilian communities pulled together to carry the soldier and his family through their losses.

The Warrior and Family Support Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, part of the military's wounded warrior transition network, worked to get Johnson to his family in Dallas quickly. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Brooke Army Medical Center Warrior Transition Battalion was doing all it could to help Johnson. Calls were made to community groups, including groups that support the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.

The Fisher House Foundation's Hero Miles program, an ASY supporter, provided an airline ticket for Johnson to fly to Dallas within hours of the accident. Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Schmidt, a platoon sergeant with Company C of the Warrior Transition Battalion, accompanied the Army cavalry scout. The two men stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, near the two hospitals.

"His wife was in the hospital for two days," Schmidt said. "So we went back and forth between the two hospitals."

The Army sent Wounded Transition Battalion Chaplain (Capt.) Bryan VanPelt to join the family.

Operation Homefront has chapters in many states and is a supporter of America Supports You. "The case manager at the hospital (in Dallas) contacted our Arkansas chapter," said Amy Palmer, Operation Homefront Texas interim chief executive, and executive vice president of operations and development, referring to Operation Homefront Arkansas. The Johnson family is from Benton, Ark.

"First we set up a fund for the family and put a notice on the Texas chapter Web site," Palmer said. "We're one of the charities of the PGA Tour. They got the information and distributed it through their contacts. Within 24 hours they had raised $45,000."

Soldiers' Angels, also an ASY supporter, provided hotel stays as needed for the Johnson family, including the soldier's mother and grandmother, in Dallas, according to a Brooke Army Medical Center official. Soldiers' Angels officials went to the hotel to give the family funding for food and other necessities. Another group, Operation Comfort, paid for gas the family needed for a rental car.

The Dallas Veteran Service Organization and the Veterans of Foreign Wars prepared meals for the family.

Monalisa Johnson recovered and was discharged. The Johnsons buried their two youngest children in Benton, Ark., Oct. 23, then returned to their son, Tyler's, bedside.

As doctors reduced the boy's circulation to prevent brain swelling, his limbs were cut off from oxygen and it looked like he would require several amputations. Johnson was able to spend time with Tyler as he lay in the hospital bed.

"He was at the hospital with him, talking to him," Schmidt said. "Every day the doctors said, 'He won't make it through the night; he has only a 2 percent chance of making it.' After a while they accepted it."

On Nov. 3, three weeks after the crash, Tyler died.

The cavalry scout and his wife are determined to prevail over this tragedy, Operation Homefront's Palmer said. "They're amazing," she said. "To see them holding hands and comforting each other is amazing. I'm really impressed."

The outpouring of support has been extremely helpful, Schmidt said.

Nobody takes care of wounded American soldiers better than Fort Sam Houston, he said, adding that corporations and the troop-support organizations have spared no expense to ease the Johnsons' burden.

"PGA Tour has raised $95,000," Schmidt said. Some of the money raised was donated to Operation Homefront Texas, which in turn bought the Johnsons a car. Another car company donated a second vehicle, Schmidt said.

American Airlines gave them tickets; Hertz and National provided rental cars, Schmidt said. Another nonprofit group, Hope for the Warriors, paid for the hotel room in Dallas, he said.

Many in the extended military family are reaching out to the Johnsons, he said. "The first lady called, then the vice president's office," Schmidt said. "They have been checking on them. People at the Pentagon are checking on them."

Though Johnson has been discharged from Brooke Army Medical Center, it's not clear if he will rejoin his unit, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

"He'll be re-evaluated," Schmidt said, "because of everything that's happened."

America Supports You was launched three years ago this month with a handful of home front groups and corporations willing to reach out to the extended military family.

"If this tragedy had happened before we had the America Supports You program in place, we wouldn't have been able to energize the community to provide the support required," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison. Barber is also the architect of America Supports You. "Now, even though we can't make everything right for the family, at least we can help connect them to as much assistance as humanly possible."

A permanent memorial is planned at the school where the Johnson children were students, at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Palmer, of Operation Homefront Texas, said.

Communities Embrace Texas Family After Tragedy [ ]