UNIDENTIFIED: And we are rolling. Anytime.
MARTIN: Okay. This is Travis Martin from the Combat Kentucky
Oral History Project here today with Brad Johnson. Brad Johnson is
a Army National Guard veteran who served from March 2002 to March
2008. He was an 88 Mike transportation, enlisted, the 2123rd Transportation
Company, and served in OIF-II. Welcome. Start today with, uh,
just a little bit of questions about your background, beginning with, uh,
where are you from?
JOHNSON: I'm from Richmond.
MARTIN: Richmond. Uh, live there your whole life?
JOHNSON: Uh, all my life that I can remember. I
was born in North Carolina but moved here shortly thereafter. Been
here ever since.
MARTIN: Okay. Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
JOHNSON: (coughs) Childhood. Um. Uh, grew up in
Richmond. Uh, one grandfather who was a cattle farmer, the other
was a tobacco farmer, so there was always plenty of farm to
00:01:00play on. Uh, brother and I basically ran around getting dirty--(laughs)--tearing
up our shoes and making our mom mad.
MARTIN: You do a lot of farm work as a child?
JOHNSON: You know what? I didn't do as much farm
work as you would think, considering two of my grandfathers were, uh,
JOHNSON: But, um, uh, one of them died when I was
very young. Uh, they sold their farm. Uh, and the
other just farmed by his--(laughs)--self. You know, he never wanted any
help, so I didn't do as much farming as you would expect
MARTIN: So your grandfathers were a major part of your life
growing up, just influence of who you became?
JOHNSON: Yeah, that's fair. Um, like I said, the one
died when I was nine or ten, so he wasn't as influential
as my other grandfather, who's still alive now. But, um, my
other grandfather was very influential.
MARTIN: So did, uh, anything or anyone early in your life
influence you to want to join the military later on?
JOHNSON: GI Joe.
MARTIN: GI Joe.
JOHNSON: (laughs) No, not really. Uh, believe it or
not, I never was a big GI Joe fan. I never
really played GI Joe. But, um, as early as I can
remember, I was always--we called it playing guns. So we'd be--you
know, we'd hide in the woods with those, plastic guns that you
pull the trigger and they go (makes toy gun sound). We
were in the woods playing with those all the time.
MARTIN: Okay. Um, what--I take it you went to school
here in Richmond.
MARTIN: Um, what kind of student were you? Did you
make good grades, average grades, or?
JOHNSON: You know, I would say I was an average student.
I probably--with a little bit of effort probably could have been
a good student, but you know, who cares when you're fifteen, sixteen--
JOHNSON:--if you get a A or a B, as long as you
MARTIN: Well, what were your, uh--did you have any favorite subjects,
things that interested you?
JOHNSON: (laughs) No. Um, you know what? I
was, I was better at the social studies and stuff like that
00:03:00than I was at science and math, but I wouldn't say I
had a favorite subject other than recess.
MARTIN: So, you mentioned that you were a fifteen-year-old, and getting
to about this time in your life, um, I guess, things started
changing for you. What kind of hobbies did you have in
high school, and what kind of stuff were you interested in doing?
JOHNSON: Uh, high school was basically, uh, consumed with sports--football, baseball.
MARTIN: Did you play sports?
JOHNSON: Football and baseball. Um, I don't know that I
had hobbies other than that. I mean, I didn't really--I didn't
hunt. I mean, I would fish, but I didn't hunt.
Um. Most--I, I would--it's fair to say the bulk of my
time was consumed with sports.
MARTIN: Those certainly count as hobbies. Um, so at what
point did you start thinking about joining the military?
JOHNSON: I--you know, it's something that was always of interest to
me, that I always thought, Man, I should do that. I
00:04:00should join the Army. I should join the Army. Um.
It was sort of more of a, uh, passing interest than
a active one, um, until, you know, I got older, I came
to--you know, I graduated high school, came to school for a while,
um, was more interested in what was downtown than what was at
the library. Um, so I left school for a bit, and
then, um, I decided I was going to enlist after 9/11.
MARTIN: Okay. So you graduated high school in what year?
MARTIN: Ninety-seven. And, um, you tried college for a little
MARTIN: How, how did college go before the military?
JOHNSON: Terrible. (laughs) Terrible. My GPA still sucks
because of my GPA then.
JOHNSON: It was terrible.
MARTIN: You attribute that to downtown.
JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. It was 100% due to downtown.
MARTIN: Then 9/11 happened.
MARTIN: What--do you remember where you were?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. I was getting dressed, um, getting ready to
00:05:00go to work. I was in the shower. My roommate
like bursts in the shower and, you know, your first instinct when
you're in the shower and your roommate busts in is, "What the
hell do you want?" And he says, "We're under attack!
We're under attack!" I'm like, What the hell? And I'm
thinking the depot's blowed up or something. "Blowed up"--that's proper English,
right? That the depot's been blown up. And, uh--(coughs)--so I
go outside, and at this point, um, one plane had flown into
the tower, and we just sat there watching it, man. And
I thought, Man, this is bullshit. I'm about to go enlist.
Because, I mean, you know after we attack--somebody attacks us, we're
attacking somebody. So.
MARTIN: So your passive interest went to an active interest.
JOHNSON: Very quickly.
MARTIN: So you're in the shower, your buddy busts in the
door saying, "We're under attack."
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah.
MARTIN: Your immediate thoughts are, I'm going to go enlist?
MARTIN: What was--what did you do next?
JOHNSON: The next day I went to see my recruiter.
Uh, talked about, you know, your typical options were, what job you're
gonna do, you're gonna be. I--it--I went to the National Guard
recruiter because I knew in the Guard that I would be able
to enlist and go fight and also be able to be here
for other things on, on the state level and be able to
help at home. Like, um, Katrina. I went down to
help with Katrina. Stuff like that that I would be able
to do. So I go to the recruiter and, uh, talk
to him, and basically the recruiter tells me, "Hey, man, you got
to lose thirty pounds." I went, "Man, really?" So after
I'm, you know, I'm all excited, I'm there, I'm ready to go,
and he says, "Man, come back when you lose thirty pounds."
So I had to go lose thirty pounds.
MARTIN: How'd you do that?
JOHNSON: Believe it or not it was Rocky Balboa style.
00:07:00Man, I would, like, go running with a backpack on because I
thought it was cool, and, um, you know, I changed my diet
drastically, and eventually I got there.
MARTIN: Did you have any friends or anyone who wanted to
join with you, or?
JOHNSON: (laughs) No. Nobody else was interested at all.
MARTIN: So what did they think about your--
JOHNSON: --they thought I was crazy.
MARTIN: What about your family?
JOHNSON: My family was fairly supportive. Um, my dad was
in the military, um, so my mom was familiar. My grandfather
was in the military. Both grandfathers were in the military.
So it wasn't, um, a huge shock to my family. Maybe
my timing was a little off for them, but, um, no, they
were, they were really supportive of it.
MARTIN: So you joined with the purpose of deploying. You
want to go--
MARTIN: --you want to go fight back at those who attacked us
MARTIN: Did you have any fears in the back of your
minds about deploying? I mean, any preconceived notions--
MARTIN: --what it would be like?
JOHNSON: Uh, preconceived notions? Yeah, I thought it was going
to be like an episode of M*A*S*H.
JOHNSON: But--not really. But--(laughs)--um, no, I mean, I didn't
know what it was going to be like. And, you know,
of course you think, you know, I'm going to deploy and people
are going to shoot at me, and that's gonna suck, and it
does. So, um, I mean, you know, you got ideas, but
the only thing you really know at that point--'cause you--I mean, at
this point I'm not even in the military, so I don't know
crap about the military other than what I saw on Full Metal
JOHNSON: You know? I mean, I have no real idea
of what the military is actually like. So as far as
knowing what a deployment is going to be like, naw, I didn't
have a clue.
MARTIN: Full Metal Jacket's a pretty scary take on the military.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah, it is that.
MARTIN: Okay. So pre--how, how long after you decided to
00:09:00join and talked to your recruiter did you actually go to basic
JOHNSON: Um, it was about--well, September when I talked to him,
and I left for basic training, uh, April eighth. And I
remember that because my birthday is on the seventh, and I was
actually supposed to go that day and forgot. And then they
called me and said, "Hey, where you at?" So I went--
MARTIN: --so, you got off to a bad start.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Got off to a horrible start.
MARTIN: Was, what, what was it like when you, um--you remember
going to MEPS [editor's note: military entrance processing station]?
JOHNSON: MEP--MEP--listen. When I was at MEPS, there was this
kid that was in my room, and this guy was nuttier than
a squirrel turd. And he, he spent all night, like, rolling
around and shooting fake people in his bed.
JOHNSON: Yes. All night.
JOHNSON: (laughs) MEPS was a horrible experience.--(Martin laughs)--MEPS was a
worse experience than the first day of basic training.
MARTIN: And that's the guy they put you in the hotel
MARTIN: Wow. Um, so did that increase your anxiety levels
at all about the type of people you'd be around?
JOHNSON: You know, I just want to get away from this
MARTIN: Just gotta get outta here (??).
JOHNSON: I didn't--(laughs)--I didn't care what happened next, I just want
to get away from this guy.
MARTIN: All--(laughs)--right, fair enough. Um, so after MEPS, you go
to basic training.
MARTIN: You, uh--where did you go to basic training at?
JOHNSON: Fort Jackson.
MARTIN: Fort Jackson?
MARTIN: Um, what was the first thing you remember?
JOHNSON: Um, a really large black guy with a round hat.
MARTIN: The round hat.
JOHNSON: Yes. I, I don't mean normal big; I mean,
this guy was Shaquille O'Neal big.
JOHNSON: Yes. And of course he was my drill instructor.
MARTIN: And how did you guys' introductions with one another go?
JOHNSON: Oh, there was yelling involved, and me running and saying,
"Yes, drill sergeant," and lots of pushups.
MARTIN: What kind of stuff did they have you do when
you first got there?
JOHNSON: Uh, you know, it's the--there's four hundred people on a
00:11:00two hundred-seat bus, with bags, and, you know, hurry up and get
off. You know, you got five seconds. Like, you know,
really? All these people gonna get off in five seconds?
So it's--everybody's pouring off of this bus, and there's a pile of
bags, and it's like, you know, go there and find your bag.
There's four hundred bags, you know, because the whole company's bags
are in one pile. And it's, you know, "You got five
seconds to get off my bus." So everybody's falling off this
bus. People were falling down. These guys are screaming and
yelling. And everybody's running to find their bag. And nobody
can find their bag right away. They're all freaking green bags;
they look the exact same. The only thing you can do
is look at the strap and fi--hopefully you can find the one
with your dagum name on it.
MARTIN: A lot of confusion, a lot of chaos when you
first got there.
JOHNSON: I'd say chaos--(laughs)--is a great word to use.
MARTIN: Then you, um, then you started training.
MARTIN: Um, what kind of stuff did you learn?
JOHNSON: Uh, uh, you know, um, how to wear your hat.
Um, you know, who to shoot, where to shoot. Um,
00:12:00not to blow yourself up with a grenade. Uh. A,
a--I don't know what to tell you, 'cause it seems like that
I--in my head, everybody knows what happens in basic training; everybody knows
what you learn there. Obviously that's not true. But, um,
you know, how to fight, how to shoot, how to run.
MARTIN: I would say each group of people has, you know,
a unique perspective--
MARTIN: --everyone's different.
MARTIN: Any individuals there that you still remember?
JOHNSON: Uh, let's see. I, I mean, I'm pausing because
I can think of--I feel like I can remember everybody, but probably
I can't. Um, there was a kid that could not march
in step but could march perfectly out of step, that was not
allowed to throw a grenade on grenade day because he would drop
it and kill us all. Um, then there's, you know, your
overachiever guy that screams, "Yes, drill sergeant" at every opportunity given, louder
00:13:00than everybody else. Um, you know, man, for the most part,
it's just a bunch of average guys. There wasn't really, um,
MARTIN: What about yourself? Did--were you the subject of attention
for the drill sergeants at all?
JOHNSON: Yeah. They, they like to talk about how big
my head is, which, you know, if a drill sergeant can find
something--here, let me show you. Look at that, see? If the
drill sergeant can find something about you to poke at you for,
they're going to do it constantly, and that's--I got picked at for
my large head.
MARTIN: At least they taught you how to wear a hat.
JOHNSON: (laughs) A big one.
MARTIN: Um, basic training. Pretty common, getting yelled out, chaos--
MARTIN: --lots of interesting people--
MARTIN: --getting made fun of for your head.
JOHNSON: (laughs) I don't know if that one's common, but.
MARTIN: Uh, anything else you remember about basic training that you'd
00:14:00like to share?
JOHNSON: (coughs) I remem--we had, um--one of our drill instructors
left to go to the expert infantry course, and we got a
guy that was a Reserve drill sergeant. And he only knew
one cadence to sing while marching, and it was a really bad
one. I don't remember how it went. But it was
one of those ones that when they start singing, you know, Man,
not this one again. But we, we sang it over and
over. I, I mean, no matter how far we marched, we
sang that one cadence repeatedly.
MARTIN: So how much--
MARTIN: How much was your experience like the movies and stuff
you had seen?
JOHNSON: Um, it--you know, the first five minutes of it is--or
the first hour of it is very similar. After that, you
know, reality sets in and you're like, All right, you know, I
can do this. And then you learn, instead of waiting on
basic training to be over, my system was to make it from
00:15:00meal to meal. Like, All right, I got two hours till
we eat, two hours. Then I--then at least you get some
sort of break. It may not be a big break.
You might not even get to sit down, or chew--
JOHNSON: --but you get a break. So my system was,
All right, I've got three hours till breakfast, I got two hours
till lunch, I've got this time till dinner, whatever. But, I
mean, as far as--I wouldn't say it was dissimilar to Full Metal
Jacket. I mean, it wasn't that extreme--
JOHNSON: but it's not far off. I mean, I'm not
getting punched in the face and, you know, beaten with soap in
a towel, but, you know, it's still tough; it's still hard to
MARTIN: Did everyone make it through basic training, or?
JOHNSON: No, there was a girl broke her leg. Another
dude broke his arm, fell off the rappel tower. He didn't
fall from the top, but.
MARTIN: Did you see that?
JOHNSON: No, I didn't see him fall.
MARTIN: So two pretty severe injuries.
MARTIN: Um, I mean, did people just fail to adapt, or?
JOHNSON: Yeah. (laughs) This one cat, he decided he
was done going to basic training, so in the middle of the
night, he gets all his stuff and puts it in a nice
little neat pile outside of the drill sergeant's office, lays in his
bed in his PT uniform, no sheets, no nothing, gets up in
the morning, and the drill sergeant freaks out, like, "Who's shit is
this? Blah, blah." And he's screaming and yelling, and we're like--nobody
knew what happened 'cause we're all asleep. And this guy has
just piled his stuff up in front of the door and decided
he was done. That didn't work out for him at all.
Then they sent him--from there they sent him to another, uh,
um, um, what do you call it? They sent him to
another company to start over. I mean, we were--we weren't far
in--we were maybe two weeks in--but still, two weeks is two weeks
in basic training, and you start over. Didn't work out for
MARTIN: I guess stuff like that made it easier for you
not to stand out.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah. It's easy to hide behind that
MARTIN: Yeah. So, um, you go through basic training, you learn
your skills. Do you remember graduation?
JOHNSON: I remember it being the hottest day in the history
of days. It was South Carolina in June. It--it felt
like it was four hundred degrees, standing outside in a parade line
wearing a Class A uniform and a hat. It was hot.
JOHNSON: That's all I remember.
MARTIN: How about the, um--did you have a new sense of
pride after you graduated?
JOHNSON: Sure. I mean, there may be--obviously there are tougher
things in the world to accomplish than basic training, but that's still
a very tough thing to accomplish, and to come out the other
end and be sane and stable is yet another feat to accomplish.
So yeah, man, I got done with basic training, and that
was, you know, my, my marker. You know, I did this,
00:18:00so I can do all these things. It was, um, the
standard by which everything else was judged.
MARTIN: Right. So you had, uh, higher expectations for yourself.
MARTIN: Um, anything else you noticed different about yourself when you
JOHNSON: Um, I had a wicked tan line, like, right here.
JOHNSON: (laughs) From here down, tan; from here up, pasty
MARTIN: After, uh, basic training, I guess you would go to
MARTIN: --Advanced Individual Training.
MARTIN: Um, tell us a little bit about that.
JOHNSON: Um, I went to Fort Bliss, Texas, which may be
the crappiest place in the entire world. I think the rest
of the world puts what they don't like in Fort Bliss, Texas.
It's hot, there's no grass, there's no trees. You are
a nine-iron from Mexico. But the food was really good.
00:19:00The food in this place is second to none. Um, had
a drill instructor there that was--he was the drill instructor from Full
Metal Jacket except he was Latino, so he had a funny accent,
which would make you giggle on occasion, which was not something you
should do when he was looking. Um, being transportation--everybody else there
was, um--what were they? They were air defense. Uh, so
we were sort of the outcasts, ca--uh, or, um, Bradleys, air defense.
So we were the outcasts. We got put in our
own special little building. I'm surprised they didn't paint it pink
for us, but.
MARTIN: Did they treat you any differently, the drill stargeant--drill sergeants?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was, uh--the first
couple of weeks, we were sort of meshed in with everybody else,
and then there were so many more transportation people coming in that
00:20:00they branched us off to where we were all transportation in the
same building. They made a trans--a company strictly for transportation instead
of having a platoon inside of a company that was for transportation.
But being with the rest of--(coughs)--the, uh, air defense guys and
the Bradley guys, we were like, uh, the runts of the litter.
MARTIN: All right. So, um, what's going on in the
world at this time? Uh.
JOHNSON: I mean, all hell is breaking loose, isn't it?
MARTIN: Right. (Johnson laughs) I mean, did--were you aware
of what's going on, or?
MARTIN: --I mean, I guess they would have been ramping up
for the war in Afghanistan.
JOHNSON: Oh, what's going on in the world while I'm at
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. Um, be--best I remember, we were--already had
some boots on the ground in Afghanistan--or, sorry, Iraq. No.
JOHNSON: Yeah, Afghanistan.
MARTIN: So were the drill sergeants trying to scare you at
00:21:00all with that, or?
JOHNSON: Oh, it was, you know, "It's a time of war.
If you don't do what I say, it's treason; I can
shoot you." Which we all know isn't true. I mean,
technically it's true, but I know he's not going to shoot me.
Um--(coughs)--uh, you know what? They--I don't remember that they act--that
they shoved--you know, they, they emphasized the fact, Hey, you know, there--there's
a war going on. Pay attention. You know, it wasn't--not
that AIT or basic training was every lighthearted, but I think they,
uh, emphasized the fact, Hey, look. So you're, you're going to
go fight a war. Pay attention.
MARTIN: So did that make you focus a little bit more,
JOHNSON: It--I, you know, I feel like that I was focused
anyway or would have been focused anyway, but it, it does hammer
the point home that this is not just something I'm learning so
I can pass a test; this is something I'm learning because I
will eventually have to do this. You know?
MARTIN: So you--you're planning on being a truck driver--
MARTIN: --in the Army--
MARTIN: --and you're at Fort Bliss, Texas.
MARTIN: And you said you were the runts of the litter.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah.
MARTIN: So were transportation guys not looked upon--
JOHNSON: --not really. I mean, when you're, when you're in
a, uh, an MOS that's not Combat Arms and you're in the
middle of a bunch of MOSs that are, you know, you sort
of get the short end of the stick.
MARTIN: So they, uh, ever slander you or talk back to
you--talk bad to you or make you--
JOHNSON: --oh, I mean, you know that's--
MARTINE: --feel like you're less of a soldier?
JOHNSON: That's the--you know, that's sort of the military culture.
You'd run your mouth and talk shit to people and, you know,
I'm tougher than you. I mean, that's just how it is,
whether you're talking about, um, uh, air defense guys talking to transportation
guys or, you know, one infantry guy talking to the other or,
00:23:00you know, whatever. I mean. On a one-on-one basis, out
of--you know, I don't--I never felt like I was less of a
soldier because I was going to be a truck driver.
MARTIN: Okay. Um, what kind of stuff did you learn
JOHNSON: Um, not to drive into big holes. Um, you
know what? AI--I mean, AIT--not a lot of learnin'. (coughs)
Not a lot of learning going on there, for me, anyway,
I mean, 'cause they were teaching me how to drive. I
mean, granted, there are procedures that you need to learn the way
the Army drives versus, you know, how you drive at home, but
it was--I started to, I started to say pointless, but it wasn't
as informational as one would hope. 'Cause really all you're learning
is how to drive in a line behind somebody.
MARTIN: So we'll talk a little bit more about the deployment
MARTIN: --but did they prepare you at all for your deployment?
JOHNSON: Um, I would say my unit prepared me for my
deployment more than AIT did.
MARTIN: Okay. Um, anything else memorable about AIT?
JOHNSON: No. It was hot.
MARTIN: Hot. So after that, I take it you went
back to Kentucky to your unit?
JOHNSON: Um-hm, yeah, came back here.
MARTIN: Okay, and what was it like the first time you
got to join your unit as a soldier?
JOHNSON: Um, it was, it was, it was--my first drill was
as nerve-wracking as my first day of basic training, 'cause you come
from the environment where, you know, you always run from place to
place, you're always either at attention or parade rest, and that's what
you would expect when you show up at drill. Drill's not
like that. Drill is far from that. So, um, my
first drill, I was nervous, man. I, I didn't sleep the
night before. I didn't know what to do. I didn't
00:25:00know anybody there. So, you know, I showed up and didn't
know where to go, didn't know where to stand, didn't know what
squad, platoon I was in. That first drill was a nightmare.
MARTIN: So, what--well, like, I mean, what kind of stuff do
you do in drill?
JOHNSON: Um, it varied. Sometimes we would, you know, spend
the entire drill, um, doing maintenance on our vehicles. Some drills
we would drive to nowhere and back. Um, you know, some
drills we would work on, um, firing from our vehicle. You
know, I--a typical drill was, you know, go to the motor pool
and work on vehicles. That's typical, or most common.
MARTIN: So would you say that your drill sessions were pretty
JOHNSON: Uh, on the whole, yeah. I mean, there were
some drills that were, like, you know, What the--can I just go
home now? What the hell are we doing this for?
00:26:00But, um, you know, that's probably everything in the military.
MARTIN: But you also said they prepared you a lot for
JOHNSON: Sure, yeah. Um, I got back to my, got
back to my unit, and we were already ramping up in Afghanistan.
And from the time--from my first drill until my last drill,
all that anybody talked about up or down the chain of command
was, We're getting deployed. Or, We're getting deployed again, or, you
know, whatever. So it was a constant, you know, be ready,
be ready, be ready, be ready. So we always, you know,
we were always checking our equipment or packing this bag for that
thing or, you know, have this ready, fill this paperwork out.
It was always--it was constantly getting ready.
MARTIN: And in the midst of all that, another war kicked
JOHNSON: Yes, which is where we landed.
MARTIN: So, what were your thoughts, what were your reactions, when
the Iraq war started?
JOHNSON: Um, on a personal level, I, I felt like that,
00:27:00um, we--somebody pulled a switcheroo on us and said, Hey, they did
it, but we're going over here. Um, but, you know, soldiering
on, you know, pack your stuff and go.
MARTIN: Okay. So you, you knew you had a sense
MARTIN: But did you feel strongly about the wars one way
JOHNSON: Um, I felt like that there was--that it may not
be the place that we needed to be, um, but I felt
like that there was good to be done for whatever reason.
Um, you know, a lot of people say that we were there
for oil or whatever. You know. Um, I think the
fact of the matter is that however you justify it, we were
there, and there were people that needed our help one way or
MARTIN: So do you remember any of the famous news scenes
of the initial push, or?
JOHNSON: I re--(coughs)--I remember--the only one I remember is--and I don't
remember where they were at. I just remember seeing--there were--and, and
it's crazy to, to turn on the news and see a live
firefight. You know. And my roommate's watching like, "Man, this
is awesome. This is awesome." I'm like(??), "This is not
awesome. People are--that guy's dead. You see that guy?
JOHNSON: You know, what I mean? He just got shot.
It's, it's not a movie; that really happened. But I
remember watching one of those firefights, and there was a guy, he
got hit, the guys come over to get him, put him on
a stretcher, and they're carrying him off on the stretcher, and this
guy's laying down, and suddenly he pops up and you see him
shoot somebody. Like, he's laying on the stretcher, pops up, bang,
JOHNSON: That's--I mean, I remember that as clearly in my head
00:29:00as I can see you sitting right here. But that's really
the only one I remember.
MARTIN: Okay, what--
JOHNSON: --and tearing down the Saddam statue.
MARTIN: Okay. So, prior to basic training, you described Full
Metal Jacket as your idea of the military.
MARTIN: Pretty violent movie.
MARTIN: Most movies are. And now you're kind of describing
a different reaction to the war scenario on television. How were--how
did your thoughts and emotions about war and military culture change?
JOHNSON: I wouldn't say they changed. I would say my--maybe
my perception was different. Because, you know, you're watching Full Metal
Jacket, it's violent, but you know it's a movie.
JOHNSON: You know? And when you're watching it actually unfold
live on CNN, it's not a movie, you know what I mean?
It's not, it's not the same "Oh, that was cool" reaction,
or it shouldn't be that same reaction as it is when you're
watching any movie. You know, it should be, Man, that guy
00:30:00had wife, kids--he's dead. You know? It's, it's serious.
It's not something that I think people should look upon for entertainment
MARTIN: Very true. Um, so Afghanistan war is going on,
Iraq war has started. It's time for you to deploy.
What led up to your deployment?
JOHNSON: Um, you know, we--(coughs)--we knew it was coming. You
know, it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of
when. So, uh, my take on the situation was, you know,
it's gonna happen; there's no sense in me sitting here worrying about
when. So I just sort of went about, went about daily
life, and I'll go to drill on drill days. And, um,
we got a call while I was at work, picked up my
stuff, and left.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about that call, or--
JOHNSON: --man, that was--you know, you know when you watch in
a movie and they put the camera on the guy and, like,
he's still but everything around him is spinning?
JOHNSON: It was a lot like that, man. It was
the most surreal thing that's ever happened, because just in that moment
you realize, My life just changed irrevocably, forever. There is no
starting back from here. That's it. Whether, whether you deploy
and come back, whether you deploy and don't come back, from this
point forward, it's gonna be different whether you like it or not,
and there's not a thing you can do about it.
MARTIN: So you're--how would you describe how you felt?
JOHNSON: Man, I--initially, I was--I really didn't feel anything about it.
I mean, I wasn't--I didn't get the phone call and start
crying; I didn't get--you know. It was--you know, it was what
00:32:00it was. But at that point, I had been married for
MARTIN: Okay, so you got married three months prior to this.
JOHNSON: Yeah, so I had to go home to a, you
know, a woman that I'd been married to for three months and
say, Hey, uh, gotta go.
MARTIN: How did she take that?
JOHNSON: About as well as you would expect her to.
JOHNSON: It was not a good day.
MARTIN: Were you--did you guys have any plans for the future
at that point that got wrecked, or?
JOHNSON: Uh, no. I mean, three months into a marriage,
we were just, just being--(laughs)--just being married.
MARTIN: And then it's time for you to deploy--
MARTIN: --just out of nowhere.
MARTIN: I mean, you kind of saw it coming, but you
JOHNSON: --didn't know when, right.
MARTIN: So how does your unit prepare you for your deployment?
JOHNSON: You do a lot of--you know, you do a lot
of, uh, scenarios. Um, ambushes were a big thing. You
know, how to react if it happens up here, back there, on
your vehicle. Um, convoy operations--which, you know, sound like, Drive in
00:33:00a straight line, follow that guy--really not that simple. Um, set
us up with equipment. Uh, you know, something that I never
really felt like that we were taught well enough was how to
call a Medevac.
MARTIN: And how does that work? Do you remember?
JOHNSON: No. (laughs) I remember the basic. I don't
remember--I mean, there was what, nine lines to a Medevac? I
don't remember all nine lines. I didn't remember them then; I
had the damn card in my helmet--
JOHNSON: --you know?
MARTIN: Okay. All right, so what--what was the, uh--when--what date
did you deploy? Do you remember?
JOHNSON: It--I think we actually--I think we landed in Kuwait, uh,
MARTIN: And what was your first reaction to Kuwait?
JOHNSON: This sucks. (laughs) I mean, you know, I was--it
wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was two or three
in the morning, you know, after a sixteen- or eighteen-hour flight, however
freakin' long it is. You know, I didn't care; I just
wanted to go to bed. I remember it was dark, it
was sandy, and it just kind of sucked.
MARTIN: You got there at night.
MARTIN: Well, was it hot or cold or--
JOHNSON: --I remember it being cold.
JOHNSON: Cold--or maybe colder than I expected, because it was the
MARTIN: --you were expecting the desert--
JOHNSON: --yeah, to be screaming hot, yeah, but it wasn't at
two in the morning; it was kind of--fairly chilly.
MARTIN: So where at in Kuwait did you go from there?
JOHNSON: We went--I don't even remember what the name of the
damn place we landed at was. Went from there to Camp
Arifjan, which is where we staged. We, we operated out of
00:35:00Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
MARTIN: Okay. So that's where your, your company would stay, is
JOHNSON: --right. That's wh--that's where our motor pool was, that's
where my tent was, that's where my footlocker was. That's generally
where I was not.
MARTIN: Did you replace a unit?
JOHNSON: Yeah, we did, yeah.
MARTIN: Did you get to meet any of those guys before--
JOHNSON: --uh, briefly. Not for any length of time.
I think one of our--one squad from each platoon ran a mission
with them to show them around, which I don't know how the
hell you learn how to get around Iraq in one trip, but,
MARTIN: --what kind of vehicles were you responsible for operating?
JOHNSON: Uh, our company was a HET company, which is heavy
equipment transporter. Basically, um, uh, Abrams tanks, Bradleys, whatever.
MARTIN: So it's a big truck.
JOHNSON: Yeah, big truck.
MARTIN: And that's what you drove when you got to, uh--
JOHNSON: --no, I didn't drive at all. I was a,
um, .50 cal gunner on a Humvee.
MARTIN: Okay. So you get to Kuwait. Do you
go straight into missions?
JOHNSON: Uh, we--it was about, I'd say, two weeks before we
ran our first mission. Got our trucks ready, packed up, um,
got acclimated to the weather, got our tents and whatnot situated before
we started running.
MARTIN: They do anything to prepare you for what lied ahead,
JOHNSON: Uh, our commander gave us a motivational speech, which really
wasn't very motivational 'cause he's a dumbass.
MARTIN: Okay. Any memorable lines or--(laughs)--
JOHNSON: I--you know what? I remember this guy saying--what'd he
say? He said--now, mind you, at this point he's been down
the road like, you know, one time. I don't even know
if he went into Iraq. He's been driving around in Kuwait.
He says, "If you want to know what being on a
mission's like, get your buddy to get a hairdryer, point it in
your face, and get somebody else to throw sand at you."
00:37:00That was his motivational speech. Not very motivational, is it?
JOHNSON: I, I can't make that up, man, that's true.
MARTIN: No, you can't--(Johnson laughs)--you're right. Um, so you're in
Kuwait. Your mission is to do what, exactly? Your unit's
JOHNSON: Um, we were tasked with taking incoming units to wherever
it may be, and the outgoing unit back.
MARTIN: Right. So that was--they would--you would load up their
JOHNSON: --we would load up the incoming unit's equipment in Kuwait,
at the port, wherever. Um, load up their stuff, take it
to wherever they were going, and hopefully the unit that was coming
home was in the same base. Usually not. So after
00:38:00we unloaded their stuff, we would go find somebody who was coming
home, load up their stuff, and bring them back.
MARTIN: So what, what does an average mission, uneventful mission, if
there is such a thing, consist of? What do you do
first? Starting in Kuwait.
JOHNSON: Starting in Kuwait? Um, pack your bags, man.
You get, um--missions usually--I'd say an average mission was nine days long,
so pack up your stuff, make sure you got everything. Don't
forget your weapon, you know.
MARTIN: What kind of stuff would you pack?
JOHNSON: I packed, um, clothes, obviously, uniforms. Um, other than
standard-issue stuff, usually, um--I usually had some sort of trail mix, um,
tobacco. Uh, beef jerky was huge, man. You could trade
00:39:00beef jerky for somebody's wife--depending on the wife and the beef jerky.
Um, you know, uh, food. I mean, who wants to
eat MREs all the time? So, you know, pack your snack
bag, and everybody had a cooler that, you know, obviously didn't have
beer in it, but, um, Gatorade, soda, because water all the time
sucks too. But, um, that's basically what I carried with me.
MARTIN: And, um, you said you were a .50 cal gunner.
MARTIN: So what did that job consist of?
JOHNSON: (laughs) That job consisted of, uh, a lot of
sand in the face. You know--(coughs)--if you remember, when the war
first started, um--what was that?(??)--the then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was criticized for
00:40:00us not having proper equipment. The first mission I ever ran
into Iraq, my Humvee didn't have doors.
JOHNSON: No doors.
MARTIN: This was a year into it.
JOHNSON: Yeah. No doors.
MARTIN: Oh. Describe, uh, your gun and your gunner's hatch
and the rest of your Humvee.
JOHNSON: My--I, I usually--the first Humvee I was in, um, you
know, the hatch is just flip a thing back and stand up.
You know, there's a strap to sit in, which is more
uncomfortable than standing the whole time. Um, you know, it was
just me, my gun in front of me, an ammo box, and
that was it. No shield on the gun, no--you know, now
you see Humvees, they've got 360-degree protection. Nope.
MARTIN: I don't think they have Humvees anymore, yeah.
JOHNSON: No, not really.
MARTIN: Um, what personal armor did you wear?
JOHNSON: Um, ballistic vests, plates, helmet.
MARTIN: Did this stuff make you feel safe at all?
JOHNSON: No. I mean--(laughs)--you know, it works if you get
shot here or here; it doesn't work so much if you get
shot here or if a bomb blows up in my Humvee with
MARTIN: Yeah. So you're a .50 cal gunner. Who
else would ride in the Humvee? Did you have set--
JOHNSON: --uh, yeah, it was always--there, there were usually three people.
Uh, there was always me and my driver--that was a constant--the
third person was usually the variable. It was--ninety percent of the
time it was somebody that never got to go on missions because
they had to stay at base camp, and they wanted to go
on a mission.
JOHNSON: Which was a huge pain in the ass because they
didn't know what in the hell they were doing. They didn't
know what to do if something happened, and they were just dead
weight. If it was a good mission, the third person was
00:42:00the convoy commander. So we got to be in the front
of everything, we knew what was going on because we could hear
him talking on the radio. And, um, but usually, like I
said, it was somebody from the freaking mailroom or, you know, somebody
that hadn't discharged their weapon, ever.
JOHNSON: Which was a pain in the ass.
MARTIN: So you could communicate with--did you had headsets?
JOHNSON: Um, sometimes. (laughs) I mean, it was like,
like everything else. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. You
know, mostly it was, you know, if something would happen I'll kicking
the driver in the back so he would know that I was
trying to talk to him, because he couldn't hear me. You
know, he--his window's down. I'm standing up on top of the
thing. So I'm usually kicking him saying, "Hey," and stick my
head down and yell. But, um, on occasion, we'd have radios
MARTIN: On occasion. Did you feel like your unit was
adequately supplied with, uh, armor and--
JOHNSON: --uh, no, but there was--I don't put the blame on
00:43:00my unit, I put the--you know, it just wasn't available. There
wasn't the resources for them or us or anybody else to have
everything they needed. It just wasn't available.
MARTIN: So you didn't see other units with armor?
JOHNSON: No. Um, when we started our trucks, I mean,
it was the, the same--their trucks had the same doors on them
there that they had on, had on them here, and you could
shoot a pistol through them. Um, somehow, I don't--we got a,
like, old, like, flak vest. I don't know where they came
from. But guys were hanging them on the doors, you know,
which may or may not help, but it if worked, it worked.
MARTIN: So you improvised sometimes.
JOHNSON: (laughs) We improvised all the time.
MARTIN: What, what are some things you would do to try
to make your vehicles more safe?
JOHNSON: I ended up--I told you the first Humvee I was
in didn't have any doors. There was--the guy that was my
00:44:00driver was a gifted mechanic, and he was--you know, he was the
kind of guy that could--he was McGyver is what this guy was.
So he and I go searching through a junkyard of old
blown-up, torn-up vehicles. We find a gunner's hatch from a Bradley
and take that off, and then he finds all this sheet metal
from something. I don't know where he got the thing, the
stuff from. Next thing I know, our Humvee has a hard
top on it, one of the big--the tall one. Has that
on it. He's put the hatch from the Bradley in the
top of the Humvee and lined the inside with sheet metal.
Which made the Humvee sort of like a rolling kettle, 'cause it
was really freaking hot in there. I don't know whether that
metal would have stopped anything or not, but I felt better about
it, and having that hatch was fantastic.
MARTIN: What about the HETs?
JOHNSON: Um, they--up until--we're probably eight or nine months into our
deployment before they got anything, and all they got was--uh, a guy
from my squad figured--made a pattern to cut the same sheet metal
that was inside my Humvee, cut it out, and they welded that
to the doors.
MARTIN: Okay, so tell us about your equipment. What's the
first leg of your mission like?
JOHNSON: First leg is basically noneventful. The first leg was
always getting from our camp to a camp just inside the Iraqi
border. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we would stop there,
spend the night before we'd cross.
MARTIN: And how long did that take?
JOHNSON: Uh, half a day.
MARTIN: Half a day? From where--from there, where would you
JOHNSON: From there, it depended where the, the endpoint of the
route was, where we went. The first--the first day after that
was usually pretty common. You'd cross the border, go through a
town, hit the highway, and drive, um, to the next camp.
Sometimes we'd pass it up. Not usually, because it was pretty--a
full day's drive from one to the other. I mean, when
your trucks are going forty miles an hour, it takes a while
to get anywhere.
MARTIN: So this is southern Iraq.
MARTIN: What's the landscape like?
JOHNSON: Flat, barren, sandy.
MARTIN: You see any of the native people?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, soon as you, as soon
as you cross the border you go through a little Iraqi town.
MARTIN: Did you interact with them at all?
JOHNSON: At first--the first few months, it was, you know, you'd
try to intera-- interact with them, and, you know, you'd try to
create good feelings toward you and towards the United States, and you'd
00:47:00try to, um, show them that, you know, you're not a bad
guy. You know, you've got all this stuff on, you've got
guns and, you know, you've got big trucks and weapons, but that,
you know, you're not there to hurt them. And then when
you do that, man, it's like eventually these--they come from--they're like cockroaches
coming out. They come from everywhere, wanting to sell you everything
from bootleg porn to cigarettes. Whatever they happen to have, they
want to sell it to you and will not leave you alone.
They will not go away. So you go from--you go
from a place where you're trying to be friendly and say, Hey,
you know, I'm not here to hurt you, I'm, uh, I'm, I'm
headed for them, to a place where it was like, Man, if
you don't get off my truck, I'm going to shoot you.
Which, I mean, I, I realize that sounds cold and uncaring, but
when you've got, you know, thirty kids climbing on your truck, one
00:48:00of them could have a bomb. I don't want them on
MARTIN: Right. So right after the border, they're relatively friendly.
MARTIN: So you're saying as you got further north, things changed.
JOHNSON: Yeah, as you got farther north, it got, it got
a little more serious the farther north you got. Um, the
closer to Baghdad you got, and, um, over towards Fallujah. You
know, when you got into the cities, it got a little more
intense. Because when you're, when you're in southern Iraq, there weren't
a lot of cities, so you could see pretty much everything.
You got into cities, there are a lot more people. They're
above you, they're behind you, they're beside you. It's, uh, it's
a little more intense then.
MARTIN: And from your first stop in Iraq, where was your
next one usually, one of your usual ones(??)?
JOHNSON: Uh, it--that's, that's the variable, because from that first stop
00:49:00in Iraq, you'd go a bunch of different directions.
MARTIN: Just, what's the most common one that you remember?
JOHNSON: (laughs) Straight up MSR Tampa.
MARTIN: To where?
JOHNSON: Don't remember. (laughs) I mean, I can see the
place in my head, but I don't remember what it was called
to save my life.
JOHNSON: No, before that. Um. Man.
JOHNSON: No. Farther south.
MARTIN: And what was the base like?
JOHNSON: It was--you know what, man? Oh, some of the
bases were shitholes that I would rather sleep in my truck than
sleep in. Some of them were really nice. One of
them had--there was a movie theater. They all had some sort
of gym. You know, um, if you were really lucky, they
had trailers with showers in them, um, hot food. Uh, I
mean, you know, on the whole, the bases were habitable. Uh,
00:50:00as you got farther north, they were a little more sketchy 'cause
mortars are landing in the middle of them, and you can't do
anything because every ten seconds a siren is going off because somebody's
shooting and you got to go in the dagum building.
MARTIN: Right. So did you sleep in your trucks?
JOHNSON: Uh, 50-50, depending on where we were. Um, most
of the time, no, we would sleep in a tent on the
base. They would have set up, um, sort of like an
area where people passing through that didn't ac--that weren't actually stationed there,
you go and say, Hey, I've got this many people, we need
tents, and they say, Okay, here's your tents. So we would
sleep in those most of the time.
MARTIN: Um, explain for those that aren't familiar what it's like
going through the gate onto a base in Iraq.
JOHNSON: Um, I would say "pain in the ass" is fair.
MARTIN: What are the procedures, I mean what's everyone supposed to
JOHNSON: Uh, you know, you got to--you know, Here I am,
00:51:00here's my movement order. Let me in. It's usually not
that simple. Searched. Checked. Depending on which base you
were--some bases weren't--some bases, you show them the movement order and ID,
and obviously there's a gigantic line of green trucks behind you.
You know. Some of them are just, Okay, go on.
Some of 'em want to search everybody. Some of them want
under the trucks, in the trucks. Take you three hours to
get through the dagum gate.
MARTIN: And, uh, from there, did you immediately offload or unload
your equipment, or?
JOHNSON: Oh, if, if it was--depending on what time of day
it was. If it was the middle of the night, there's
no way we're finding a liaison from the company that we were
giving to or taking from, so we'd go to sleep, wait till
the next day. Um, that's assuming we were offloading there.
If we weren't offloading, we'd just stage our trucks and either go
to the gym or go get something to eat or go to
MARTIN: And then you would leave the next morning?
JOHNSON: Usually, unless we had some sort of maintenance issue or
MARTIN: So you always pulled day missions.
JOHNSON: No, not always. Not always. If we had
to be somewhere quick, it was, You're driving night, day. Sometimes--you
know, we would drive at night, which never made sense to me,
because we didn't drive with our lights off. So we looked
like a gigantic row of Christmas trees driving through the desert.
MARTIN: Right. Um, you ever get lost?
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah, we got lost. We got lost
because we were following, uh, people from another company. They were
taking--they were, uh, escorts. They were escorting us, and they escorted
us the wrong daggone way, into the middle of it's a little
bitty like back alley in Baghdad. And you--we've got these gigantic
00:53:00trucks. You just can't turn around anywhere. I mean, even
here when we drive them, we have to go--I mean, if we
stop, we have to go to a big truck stop. We
couldn't just pull off anywhere. We're in this alley thing that
I couldn't drive my car down now, trying to drive these trucks,
and we just wouldn't fit. So now we've got a hundred
trucks down this alley that now we have to back up out
of. And this process takes about five hours.
JOHNSON: While the, the population is coming out to see what
we're doing, which made for a very hairy situation.
MARTIN: What happened?
JOHNSON: Uh, you know what? No-- believe it or not,
nothing actually--nothing ended up happening. But it's a tense situation, to
be standing in the top of a Humvee and peop-- Iraqis are
literally surrounding me. You know, I can't pull out my gun
00:54:00and start shooting. You know, you could yell at them and
tell them to go away, but they know I'm not going to
shoot them, so they don't care what I say.
MARTIN: How'd you keep them away?
JOHNSON: You didn't. I mean, nobody got close enough to
the vehicle to touch it, but they were close enough and there
were enough of them, had they had ill intentions, I was screwed.
MARTIN: Okay. Um, so I got a pretty good idea
of what your average mission was like. Um, obviously you're in
a war zone--
MARTIN: --bad things happen. What's your first memory of combat?
JOHNSON: My first memory of combat is hearing the whistle of
an incoming mortar. That is the most terrifying noise I can
imagine, because you can hear it; you can't see it. You
don't know where it's going to land. It might land on
your head; it might land way over there. You don't know
00:55:00where it's going to land. Most--that's--I mean, to me, that's scarier
than hearing bullets go by your head.
JOHNSON: 'Cau-- Because it's, it's present, but you don't know where.
You can't hide from it. You can't get behind something
and block yourself from a mortar.
MARTIN: There's no control of the situation?
JOHNSON: No. I mean, you can--like I said, I mean,
you hear that whistle--and you hear it on a movie and it's
like, Man, I bet that sucks. Yeah, it sucks. It
sucks. You can't take cover behind a pile of sandbags from
a mortar, 'cause it might land right there.
MARTIN: Right. So, were your convoys ever hit with IEDs,
JOHNSON: --yeah. Um, luckily the--nobody ever got hurt really bad
from an IED. Um, it happened, more than once, but luckily,
um, nobody got seriously injured from an IED.
MARTIN: Did you ever have to shoot your .50 cal?
MARTIN: What was the first time you shot your .50 cal?
JOHNSON: It was the same day, um, I heard that mortar
coming in. It was Easter Sunday 2004, maybe? Something like
that. I don't know, man. Yeah, Easter Sunday in '04.
We were staged at Baghdad International Airport, and we had been
there for a day or so, waiting to move. We had
some maintenance issues, best I remember, and, um, just suddenly all hell
breaks loose. They start--and I can't understand why. They were
shooting--(burps)--at the wall. Instead of shooting over the wall, shooting at
the wall. And just suddenly all hell breaks loose. I
was in the middle of a game of Spades. I didn't
have my uniform on. I had my shirt on. Well,
00:57:00I had my pants on. But I wasn't dressed for, for
action. Um, there was a, a canopy tied to my gunner's
hatch for shade. It was like, Holy shit. And there's
a berm behind us, and I looked up, and there was a
Humvee parked on the berm and a guy with an M16, and
then there was a guard tower. An RPG goes by the
guard tower. The guard jumps out of the tower--from the top
of the tower--jumps out of the tower. Never mind you're on
frickin' guard duty, just jump out. You know what I'm saying?
And then the guy on the berm with the--in the Humvee
is--he's, he's kind of duckin' and doing this number, hiding. I'm
thinking, Shit, man, we're about to get--they're about to break through this
wall and overrun us, and we're standing here playing daggone cards.
So I put my flak vest on. I don't remember how
00:58:00I got the canopy off the Humvee. I think I cut
it off. I don't remember. But I get my stuff,
get in the Humvee. Um, somebody, I don't remember who, got
in the Humvee and drove me up onto that hill. And
the guy that was up there had backed his Humvee off and
come--walked back up there. And--(laughs)--I remember saying, "What are we shooting
at?" He said, "They're over there." So cocked and locked
and went through about nine hundred rounds.
MARTIN: Did you end the threat?
MARTIN: So you were on base.
JOHNSON: We were on a base, yeah.
JOHNSON: --a fairly large base. This wasn't some--
JOHNSON: Yeah. This wasn't some, uh, observation post we were
at, or some fire base. This was a big base.
MARTIN: How did--how did that make you feel after that?
I mean, you're supposed to feel safe on a base, right?
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah, you would think so. Um, you
00:59:00know, like I said, when you get--when you got farther north in
Iraq, it got a little sketchier because they would lob mortars into
bases on a regular base--base, basis, basis. Uh, but yeah.
I mean, I didn't, I didn't feel less safe on a base
because of that, I was just more aware.
MARTIN: Was this your first, like, combat scene?
MARTIN: I mean, regularly, were mortars and stuff--I mean, you would
get mortared on bases a lot ----------(??)?
JOHNSON: I mean, it happened. I would say--if I was
on a base a hundred times, it got mortared forty.
JOHNSON: So forty--I would say 40 percent of the time.
MARTIN: So any other, um, major combat that you'd like to
JOHNSON: I mean, there was, there was little stuff. There
was driving down the road in the middle of the night and
somebody wants to shoot at you so you shoot back at them,
and, you know, that stuff happened a lot. But that, that
01:00:00BIAP [editor's note: Baghdad International Airport] thing was--you know, that was fairly
MARTIN: So at the BIAP thing and afterwards, did you feel
like you were adequately prepared for that situation?
JOHNSON: You know what? I st--I'm still not sure about
that. I remember that I was thinking--you know, I'm standing, you
know, behind my .50 cal, firing my weapon, and I remember hearing
bullets--(makes bullets flying by sound)--and I remember having the thought that if
I could--if I could hear them--because initially I'd hear it and I
went, you know, duckin', but I remember thinking to myself, If I
can hear it, I'm still alive. And you can't dodge a
bullet literally, so I figured I'm just going to stand here and
I'm going to fire this weapon until they stop or I stop.
JOHNSON: Was--and, you know, and that was really the only way
I thought that you could deal with it. Because--I mean, I
can't stand here behind my weapon and not fire it. I
01:01:00can't stand here and dodge the bullets that I hear, because obviously
if I hear them, they're gone. So it was either, you
know, duck and hide or, you know, fire my weapon until I
stop or they stop.
MARTIN: Do you remember anything from basic training or AIT come
in useful at that point?
JOHNSON: Um, I would, I would say more than anything the
mentality, the, you know, sense of purpose, sense of duty.
MARTIN: So you were just ready to react to the situation.
MARTIN: Not necessarily a particular one, but--
UNIDENTIFIED: Excuse me. Can I break you just for a
second so I can, uh, change my tape?
JOHNSON: Yeah, sure.
UNIDENTIFIED: I'm sorry.
[Pause in recording.]
UNIDENTIFIED: Okay, we're rolling.
JOHNSON: All right.
MARTIN: Okay. Um, so we were talking about a situation
where you were on a base in Baghdad.
MARTIN: And, uh, you had to return fire to enemy that
was attacking the base.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah.
MARTIN: And the guard tower guy ran away.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah. He ran away.
MARTIN: Obviously he didn't get any medals that day.
JOHNSON: (laughs) No, he did not.
MARTIN: Um, you were pretty well prepared for that. Um,
I guess what else can you remember about the deployment that you'll
JOHNSON: Uh, I would say the bad stuff, you try to
forget and you don't want to remember. Um, uh, some of
my more vivid memories are ju--for what little times we were at
our camp and in our tent, you know, I remember that stuff.
I remember, you know, grab-assing with my buddies, and I remember
doing that stuff. I don't--you know, I remember missions being long
and hot and sucking, but, you know, those things are not something
that I've tried to engrain or remember. Or, you know, not
01:03:00necessarily that I've actively tried to forget them, but it's just not
the part of the story that stands out to me.
MARTIN: Okay. So during your deployment, did you have a
chance to call home and talk to your wife at all?
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yes, and that makes another interesting story.
MARTIN: Let's hear it.
JOHNSON: (laughs) The fir-- the first time I called my
wife, I had been there for six or eight hours, long enough
to process and get where I was supposed to be. And,
uh, would go and find a phone and wait in freaking line
and all this crap. And I call her up, and we
talk for about ten or fifteen seconds, and she says, "Guess what?"
I thought, you know, Hell, I don't know. I said,
"What?" She says, "I'm pregnant." And I thought, Son of
a bitch. (laughs) And my first thought--and I should not have
said this--my first--the first thing out of my mouth was "Is it
01:04:00mine?" like a jackass. And, uh--which didn't go over well.
MARTIN: Did you have any reason to believe it wasn't?
JOHNSON: No, other than I was in another country, but I
had just seen her like two weeks before that. Uh, yeah,
I--yeah, that was my first conversation on the phone with my wife--
JOHNSON: --was "I'm pregnant."
MARTIN: That's not smooth man.
JOHNSON: No, not at all.
MARTIN: Uh--(laughs)--so this whole time, you, you basically know you're going
to have a kid when you get back.
MARTIN: What's that like?
JOHNSON: It was nerve-wracking, man. I mean, trying to figure
out how to be a soldier and survive a war and at
the same time worry about how to be a father when I
get home. Because this is--I mean, remember, this is January.
A deployment is longer than nine months.
JOHNSON: So I set up my R&R time so it would
coincide with when my son was supposed to be born. And,
01:05:00uh, you know, thankfully, I got, I got to be able to
come back here and see that happen.
MARTIN: So what was that trip like?
MARTIN: What does one do when they're going on R&R?
How do they get home?
JOHNSON: Well, you depart from your base and you go to
another base that's sort of a central gathering point for everybody that's
going on R&R. You stay there one, two days, until it's
time for your flight to leave. You get on a bus,
drive to an airport, get on a plane, and fly until you
MARTIN: Any good stops along the way?
JOHNSON: (laughs) No, no.
MARTIN: Were you in uniform when you flew?
MARTIN: What were people's reactions to you when you got back
JOHNSON: Um, I landed--I want to say I landed in Houston.
I don't think that's right, but. Maybe it was Atlanta.
01:06:00I landed in Atlanta, I got off the plane, and I'm
walking to my connecting flight. And for some reason, I was
the only person around. I don't know where everybody else went.
But I start going up this escalator, and I hear people
clapping. And in my head, I'm thinking, What in the hell's
going on up here? There's nobody around me, which makes no
sense in an airport like Atlanta, that there's nobody around me, but
there wasn't. I get up to the top of the escalator,
and there are people standing, like, all the way around these steps
clapping, and they're looking at me. And I'm thinking there's somebody
behind me. I'm like, What the hell are these people clapping
for? And this lady comes out of the crowd. She's
wearing like, uh, a USO button on her shirt. And this
lady walks up and shakes my hand and says, "Thank you."
And I, and I said--I was still confused. And I said,
"What, uh, what?" She said, "We knew you were coming, so
01:07:00we decided we'd stand here and clap for you."
MARTIN: Hmm. That make--how did that make you feel?
JOHNSON: Man, that was--that was one of the more amazing feelings
that, you know, you've, you've been fighting this war for so long
and you don't know if, you know, you're going to live the
next day. Or, you know, I'm trying to go home to
see my son be born. And then, you know, all these
people that I don't know from anybody else in the world are
standing--I mean, there weren't ten people; there were seventy-five people standing there
clapping because I'm on my way home and I'm wearing my uniform.
It was, it was a pretty amazing feeling.
MARTIN: So you, you got home.
MARTIN: You got to witness the birth.
MARTIN: What was that like?
JOHNSON: Uh, the first word that comes to mind is disgusting.
JOHNSON: (laughs) The second thing that comes to mind is,
01:08:00uh--it was pretty unreal, man. Um, my son had a hard
time, uh--he had a hard time coming into this world. Um,
(laughs) but he made it, and, uh, six years later he's still
MARTIN: Good. What'd you name him?
MARTIN: So you got to spend a little bit of time
MARTIN: --before you left.
JOHNSON: Yeah. He was actually--like I said, he had a
hard time coming. He was actually pretty sick when he came,
and he was in the, uh, neonatal ICU for a week.
My commander let me stay until he got to come home.
MARTIN: And how long was that?
JOHNSON: It was a week. He was--
MARTIN: --so you got an extra week?
MARTIN: That was nice of him.
MARTIN: Um, was it hard to leave him?
JOHNSON: Uh, yeah. It was--it wa--yeah. It may not
have been as hard were he not sick, but, um, yeah, it
was hard, man. It was, um, not something I wanted to
MARTIN: What was, um--what was it like acclimating to the States
after being in Iraq for so long during your--
JOHNSON: --I didn't. In that two-week period--
JOHNSON: --I didn't.
MARTIN: So you're pretty much in combat mode the whole time
you were home.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah.
MARTIN: Okay. We can talk a little bit more about
that later. So you go back from leave--
MARTIN: --you get back to your unit. How much longer
do you have?
JOHNSON: Uh, that was September. We came back in January,
almost, almost a year to the day, we came back.
MARTIN: And so any more mental things happen between then and
JOHNSON: Not really. (laughs) I got--somehow, I got s--put on,
uh, a lovely job of scouring the country of Kuwait for containers,
01:10:00Conexes. So th--I mean, it wasn't just me; there was a
group of people. But our job was to more or less
go from base to base in Kuwait and find these containers that
are missing. Um, apparently the government didn't own these containers; they
were leased to the government at, at a extraordinarily high amount of
money. So our job was to go around and find those,
which we did, and we found a lot of them. And,
um, the, the--I mean, it was cool to do something different and
be able to drive around Kuwait in a real car, but man,
that--we--I did that for two months.
MARTIN: So you drove around in Kuwait, in just the cities
and stuff, or?
JOHNSON: Uh, I mean, drive from base to base.
MARTIN: Base to base.
JOHNSON: I mean. But--I mean, it was cool for like
01:11:00a week, but after a week it started to suck.
MARTIN: Okay. So getting ready to leave your deployment, and
no one's been seriously injured?
JOHNSON: Uh, one KIA in the company.
MARTIN: Oh, really?
MARTIN: So--when did that happen?
JOHNSON: I want to say--I want to say March--
MARTIN: --what happened--
JOHNSON: --or April. March or April, yeah.
MARTIN: What happened? Were you on that convoy?
MARTIN: No? Do you remember being told what happened, or?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Um, some of my buddies from my squad
were, um, gone on that mission in that convoy, and the platoon
sergeant came around to all the tents. You know, "Everybody come
up here. We gotta--" I mean, instantly you know.
If they're getting everybody together, something bad happened. They don't get
you together to say, you know, We're going to have a company
JOHNSON: So my only thought was, Man--I'm worried about my buddies.
01:12:00But, um, yeah, man, I remember. Everybody was standing around
the circle, and the commander told us that, uh, Lieutenant Henderson had
MARTIN: So it was an IED?
JOHNSON: Uh, one--there was one bullet hole in that Humvee.
MARTIN: That is all?
JOHNSON: One bullet hole.
JOHNSON: Nope. Through the door, through this leg.
MARTIN: Okay. And how did the unit react to that?
JOHNSON: As you would expect us to. I mean, you
know, obvio--in a company of three hundred, you're not close to everybody.
JOHNSON: And, you know, I barely knew Lieutenant Henderson. But,
you know, some people that were really close to him took it
really hard, as, you know, I would have if I'd been really
close to him.
MARTIN: So did that change your mission operating procedure at all,
JOHNSON: No. It made it--it put more--it made me put
01:13:00more to the forefront that we needed to armor our vehicles.
MARTIN: That didn't happen for a while.
JOHNSON: No, it took a while.
MARTIN: Um, okay. So obviously that's a big event.
Coming to the end of your deployment, what do you do to
JOHNSON: Pack your shit, man.
MARTIN: Just pack all your stuff?
JOHNSON: (laughs) I mean, you gotta go through--we had to
wash all our equipment, wash our trucks, um, pack up your stuff,
had to get your stuff inspected to make sure you weren't smuggling,
seal it up, put it in a container, send it home.
MARTIN: Did people smuggle anything?
JOHNSON: No, of course not. Nobody would ever do that.
MARTIN: Okay. Fair enough. Um, wash your trucks.
MARTIN: Why would you wash your truck in a desert?
JOHNSON: (laughs) I--you know what? It seems like the
dumbest thing in the world, doesn't it? But we were washing
them because we were sending them back here. We were--we took--we
01:14:00didn't take our equipment with us; we inherited from the unit previous
to us, and we brought--the unit that replaced us brought theirs, so
we had to send the ones we used home.
MARTIN: So all that work you did on your trucks during
MARTIN: --you didn't even use them.
MARTIN: Okay. Could've helped somebody else out, at least.
MARTIN: Um, you return home. Um, did you have any
medical problems or anything?
MARTIN: No. Um, did they screen you for stuff?
JOHNSON: Sure. You know, you come--when you get back, right
after you stop and, uh, debrief, and they say, you know, "You
can go get checked, but if you go get checked, you're going
to be here another two weeks," who in the hell is going
to go do that? I mean, if your arm was cut
off, you wouldn't go, so you had to stay two more weeks.
01:15:00So, you know, it's sort of a catch-22. You can
go get checked out, or you can go home. Which one
do you want to do? I'd been gone for a year.
I'm going home.
MARTIN: Right. So the whole getting back to Kentucky.
Get back here, what's--is there a celebration or a welcome-back ceremony or
anything like that?
JOHNSON: Yeah. There were--we got--when we landed in Louisville, there
were, you know, family and well-wishers there to greet us. And
then I don't think it was right away, some--it seems like it
was a couple of weeks after that there was a welcome-home ceremony
at Alumni Coliseum.
MARTIN: What was that like?
JOHNSON: Nobody wanted to be there. You know, they were--it
was to honor us and say, you know, thank you, but on
the whole, we didn't care. We didn't--it was some--another thing that
we had to do that we didn't want to do. You
know, you could have just given me my crap and said thank
01:16:00you instead of making me stand there for two hours and listen
to people tell me, you know, good job.
MARTIN: So how long were you actually still activated after you
got back before they released you?
JOHNSON: Um, two years.
MARTIN: Two years?
JOHNSON: How long was I still in the Guard?
MARTIN: No, how long were you still, you know, active?
JOHNSON: Oh. Uh, I don't remember.
MARTIN: A couple weeks?
JOHNSON: I'd s--I'd s--adding in leave time, I'd say a month,
MARTIN: Okay. So, uh, after that, it's back to civilian
MARTIN: --for the most part. Um, did you have any
JOHNSON: Man, I still have trouble acclimating.
MARTIN: Do you have nightmares--
JOHNSON: --no, no--
MARTIN: --or anything like that, or?
JOHNSON: Uh, all the, the serious issues have subsided.
MARTIN: But when you first got back, it was--
JOHNSON: --oh, I mean, when you first get back, it's--you know,
you're still tense, you're still, you know, uh, not calm.
MARTIN: Right. Did you, uh, get any assistance from the
VA for that, or?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Uh, you know, you--I have mixed feelings about
the VA. They, um--you know, they try to help. It
sort of seems like a half-hearted effort. But, um, you know,
the VA's given me a lot of stuff. They, you know,
give me the ability to go to school here and, uh, you
know, give me, give me a way to provide for my kids,
MARTIN: Speaking of that, did you still have your job when
you got back?
JOHNSON: That's an interesting story. Um, before I left, I
was working as an insurance agent, and I--you know, I was new
to the business, so I wasn't working purely on commission. My
boss was paying me, um, some money, above the table, and some
more money under the table, which is fine, you know. Um,
01:18:00I get back, call him. (burps) Excuse me. I
get back and I call him, and he says, "I can't afford
to pay you." I'm thinking, Man, that's some--really? And he
says that he can pay me what he was paying me above
the table but not the rest, which--what I was getting paid above
the table wouldn't buy gas. So the short answer is no,
I didn't have my job.
MARTIN: Even though there are federal laws protecting it?
JOHNSON: Yeah. And I could have--you know, I could have
done that, but I would have only gotten what he was paying
me above the table, which wasn't enough to do anything.
MARTIN: So things aren't as peachy as they make them out
MARTIN: So you had, you had some trouble when you got
back. I mean--
JOHNSON: --yeah, a little bit--
MARTIN: --on edge, can't--don't have a job, you got a new
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah.
MARTIN: Just go through there and summarize it because--
JOHNSON: --well, it--
MARTIN: --you got a lot going on(??).
JOHNSON: (laughs) Uh, um, you know, uh, coming back--I came
01:19:00home, I had a four-month-old son, uh, didn't have a job.
You know, was still edgy from fighting a war. It was,
it, you know, and sometimes still is, a difficult transition to go
from, you know, combat to being normal, or "normal." Um, uh,
you know, the--it created problems with, uh, me and my wife.
Um, which, you know, had been, had been created and started while
I was deployed, and it just compounded it. Um, we ended
up getting divorced. And, um, you know, life goes on, I
MARTIN: Okay. So were there any things when you first
got back that you considered to be like triggers that would kind
of put you in a bad mood as far as after deployment
01:20:00compared to before?
JOHNSON: Um, crowds, noises, people behind me. Um, boxes and
stuff on the side of the road. That was--man, that was
a killer one. If I saw something on the side of
the road, I freaked out. I don't--
MARTIN: --what's a--what's a box on the road mean here differently
JOHNSON: Oh, in Iraq, it means it might be a bomb
because, you know, they're hiding stuff in dead animals and boxes and
digging holes in the road and covering it up. In Iraq,
it means bomb; here it means somebody threw something out the window.
MARTIN: So you appreciate a nice, well-maintained--
JOHNSON: --I, I, I do appreciate, um, the Adopt-a-Highway program.
MARTIN: That's a good project for veterans to get involved with.
(Johnson laughs) Um, came home. Marital problems.
MARTIN: Would you say that was mostly precipitated by the deployment,
or other things too?
JOHNSON: Uh, you know, now that it--there's been some time between
01:21:00then and now and I can have some perspective and look back,
um, at that time, I was, I was twenty-four. My wife
was--I don't think she had turned twenty-one yet. Maybe she was
twenty-one. Either way, we're both very young. Um, she was
not, not very trusting, for no reason. Every conversation we had
while I was deployed was, you know, Are you cheating on me?
Who's this? Who's that? Uh, it, it just got
tiring, man. And then when I got home, it was the
same thing. And it's--you know, with the perspective I have now,
it's not that she did anything wrong or I did anything wrong
or she's a bad person or nothing like that, it was just
we were both young, we had a, uh, a young son, and
it was just--it was a recipe for disaster, you know.
JOHNSON: I can't say that with any fairness or certainty, if
you took the deployment out of the picture--I don't, you know, I
don't even know that we would, uh, still be married without that.
But it definitely was a huge factor. I mean, 'cause
like I told you before, we were married for three months, and
then I was deployed. So.
MARTIN: So you get--you got these things going on, but you're
still in the Guard.
MARTIN: And you mentioned helping out with Katrina.
MARTIN: So tell us a little bit what that was like.
JOHNSON: Man, helping out with Katrina was one of the more
frustrating things I've ever done, because, you know--and, and now--all you ever
hear now is, you know, FEMA took a week to get water
to New Orleans, wh--which is partially true. Um, it took me
01:23:00and my unit, it took us I want to say four days
to drive down there. Mind you, we're driving military vehicles that
go forty-five miles an hour, fifty downhill if you give it the
Fred Flintstone out the door. You know, it just took a
while to get down there, and it was frustrating to not be
able to get there and help. But once we got there,
we were actually at, at a, a training camp in Mississippi, where
we staged from. Once we got there, it took another--man, almost,
almost another week for us to even get supplies to give out,
to know where to go. I mean, which may or may
not be the military's fault, but what you have to remember is
01:24:00that the infrastructure in New Orleans and Mississippi was basically destroyed.
And it was frustrating to be there and want to help and
try to help and have all the wind in the sails you
could imagine but nowhere to take it. And, and but--I mean,
besides that, the place was destroyed. I mean, there was--it was
MARTIN: Did you feel like you was able to help out
at least some?
JOHNSON: Man, you know, I would like to say that I
helped out some. I--but in reality, I probably didn't.
MARTIN: At least you tried.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yeah, I guess.
MARTIN: Um, after that, what--how much longer did you have before
you got out?
JOHNSON: Uh, two years.
MARTIN: Two years?
MARTIN: What kind of stuff did you do in those two
JOHNSON: Uh, man, those second two years were--or those last two
years--were relatively uneventful. Um, we did normal drills. It was
still the, you know, Are we getting deployed again? When are
we getting deployed again? We still played that game all the
time. Um, yeah, the sec--the last two years were a blur.
I, I--honestly, the only thing I remember was, um, going to
NCO Academy. That's it. (laughs) That's all I remember.
MARTIN: So you got out as a?
MARTIN: E-6. Staff sergeant. Um, did you get some
good leadership experience?
JOHNSON: I did. Um, you know, being able to lead
soldiers is, you know, probably one of the best, uh, learning environments
01:26:00'cause, you know, it's, it's not something you can do wrong and
get away with it. You can do it wrong, but you're
not going to get away with it. So, you know, it's
a good experience. Um, can be a bad experience. It's
just one of those things where, you know, there's a way to
do it, and you can do it that way and do a
good job, or you can not do it that way and not
have that job anymore.
MARTIN: So you got out in March 2008.
MARTIN: Um, what did you do after that?
JOHNSON: Let's see. Two thousand eight, I got out.
Uh, at this point I had started culinary school. I did
that, uh, started working as a chef. I did that until
June of 2010? Yeah, June 2010, and then I, um, uh,
01:27:00enrolled back here at EKU in the Homeland Security department.
MARTIN: Okay, so you're going in a bunch of different directions.
JOHNSON: (laughs) Yes.
MARTIN: Culinary and homeland security.
MARTIN: Um, you mentioned riding with the Legion Riders.
MARTIN: Any reasons you decided to do that?
JOHNSON: Uh. Yeah, maybe, hopefully, you know, there's some good
to be done, and, you know, maybe I can do some, you
know? I don't, I don't have any aspirations of being the
savior of all veterans, but, um, you know, hopefully I can, I
can help out somebody that needs it.
MARTIN: These are the fellows that protect the funerals, correct?
JOHNSON: That is the Patriot Guard.
MARTIN: The Patriot Guard.
JOHNSON: Which I also ride with them.
MARTIN: How does that make you feel? Just the fact
that people protest funerals in this country.
JOHNSON: There is not another thing in the world that makes
01:28:00me more angry. My heart rate just went through the roof
thinking about it. Makes me angry.
MARTIN: ----------(??) um--yeah, it does that to a lot of people.
Um, I guess now I got to ask, um, having heard
your story and having just told your story, if you had to
do it all over again, would you?
MARTIN: Absolutely? So what would you say to people thinking
about joining the National Guard?
JOHNSON: Do it.
MARTIN: Do it.
JOHNSON: You know, it's, it's not an easy thing to do.
It's not something that you can sign up, walk through the
door and walk out the back door and be fulfilled. It's
something that, you know, there's going to be pain, physical and mental
and emotional. You're going to suffer. Um, you know, you're
going to go through some, uh, you know, maybe mild, maybe severe
01:29:00personal tragedy. Um, it's not going to be an easy thing
to do. It's not going to be an easy thing to
accomplish. Especially--you know, we don't--where's the next war going to be?
Is there going to be? Or when is it going
to be? You know, it's not, uh, not something you can
just sign up and breeze through. But the back side of
it is, you know, it, it, it will make you a different
person; whether it's better or not is up to you. It--that's
all in your attitude towards it. And there are lots of
opportunities available on the other end of it.
MARTIN: Okay. What, um--I asked you at the beginning of
the interview what kind of preconceived notions you had. Uh, now,
do you look back at the way you thought about things, the
war, the military, what you expected, how--do you see things differently now
01:30:00that kind of surprise you?
JOHNSON: Uh, I wouldn't say that I see them differently.
I would say that, that there's been, you know, enough time passed
that I can look at it with a different perspective and, you
know, when you're there and you're in the moment, everything looks different
than it does when you look back at it and fit it
into the context of your life and what was happening then.
And, you know, I sort of feel the same way now that
I did the day I enlisted. You know, I want to
do something to help out, which is, you know, why I go
with the Legion or why I do Patriot Guard or, you know,
why I do--why I'm doing this, you know.
MARTIN: Homeland security.
JOHNSON: Homeland security.
MARTIN: So, that being said, what's next for you?
JOHNSON: (laughs) What's next? Um, hopefully graduation soon, uh,
01:31:00a job. You know, I'm, I'm content to spend whatever life
I have left, um, trying to enjoy it the best I can.
MARTIN: Okay. I guess the last thing I'll ask you
is, um, any lessons that you've learned that you think people--you'd like
to share with people?
JOHNSON: The biggest lesson that I've learned that I think maybe
people could benefit from, and it's something that I think of, think
about every single day, is that it's not as bad as you
think it is, and you should focus on the things and the
people that are actually important instead of everything else around you that
01:32:00really, at the end of the day, is inconsequential. You know,
making sure you have the nicest car, making sure your yard is
perfect, all those things, at that end of the day, when you
are laying in your deathbed, they do not matter. Nobody cares.
Take your time, spend it with your family, spend it with
your friends, and live your life in a manner in which you
are not constantly stressed out and worried about material things and what
job you have and all that stuff. It doesn't matter.
What does matter is the people you spend it with.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: This is, uh, the end of the From Combat to
Kentucky Oral History interview with Brad Johnson. And, uh, that's it.
JOHNSON: No problem.
[End of interview.]