LONGTIME GUARDSMAN HELPS FORM AIRPORT SECURITY PLAN
Forty-five years, 10 months and 16 days is a long time by anybody's reckoning.
But for Jack Johnson of La Grande it was time well spent in a good cause service in the militia to his community and country.
That's how long Johnson had put in when he was honored at a retirement ceremony on Nov. 27, 2001, for his years in the Army National Guard.
As was befitting the occasion that marked his official retirement, he received several gifts, plaques, trophies and even a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol on his 62nd birthday, Sept. 27, 2001.
But the highest honor, and the one he is most proud of, is the Legion of Merit "for exceptional meritorious service, Nov. 28, 1991, to Nov. 27, 200l." The certificate commemorating that honor was signed by Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White and Lt. Gen. Freddy E. McFarren, commanding general of the Fifth U.S. Army.
While Johnson, who has lived in the same La Grande home for 35 years, has received other honors and served in other capacities, his last duty was his most rewarding, he said, and epitomizes what the National Guard stands for.
"With Maj. Gen. Alexander Burgin, the Guard's adjutant general in Oregon, and following President Bush's agenda, I helped set up airport security plans, called Operation Noble Eagle, for all seven of Oregon's commercial airports following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (in New York, Alexandria, Va., and Pennsylvania)."
He worked on that project from Sept. 27, 2001, to May 10.
"It was my last assignment and the one I'm proudest of. There can be no more important duty for the militia than defending our homeland," Johnson said one day recently from his home.
In a display over the TV were several awards and commendations, including one personally signed by then Secretary of Defense William Perry, a typical certificate of appreciation from the president, a small Minuteman Award statue "for outstanding service to the National Guard Bureau," and a plaque from the local 3rd Squadron, 116th Calvary.
There were three medals, one a state Distinguished Service Award presented by the adjutant general, the Meritorious Service Medal presented by Burgin and the Legion of Merit from the Secretary of the Army.
It was in 1956 when a young community leader, Bill Carey, went up to La Grande High School and recruited Johnson and others to be in the National Guard.
"He was a great man," Johnson said of the attorney who went on to become a general in the Guard and have a wing of the local National Guard Armory named for him.
"Back then, all the leaders in the Guard were also community leaders. That's what made the National Guard so strong. Then, you joined the Guard and the unit trained you.
Johnson went on to complete various other training, including the Reserve Enlisted Program in 1957. In 1995 he went to Fort Rucker, Ala., to qualify as First Chief Warrant Officer.
"When I was appointed, there were 38 appointed that day. It varies, but there are about 46 total in the Guard today," Johnson said.
"My duties were to manage and train and promote the well-being of the warrant officer corps in Oregon and to be an adviser to the adjutant general on warrant officer issues," Johnson said.
"It's a great program; we've done a lot. The warrant officer program is a unique one. Warrant officers have been around since the Revolutionary War. John Paul Jones was one. The Army didn't recognize the value of warrant offices until about 1917 when they discovered in World War I that we needed technicians so we could operate in the field. Now they have become a group of real professionals," Johnson said.
He said about 55 percent of warrant officers today are aviators, flying Blackhawk helicopters and other airships. Others have duties ranging from maintenance personnel to military police.
As the command chief warrant officer, Oregon National Guard, Johnson was responsible for the warrant officer career program in the state and managed the professional development and careers of more than 151 warrant officers.
As command chief warrant officer 5, he devoted more and more time to the Guard. This included trips to Salem and Washington, D.C. "I went wherever I was needed," he said. But being in the Guard was not at first an all-consuming position for Johnson.
"I started out in 1956 going to Spokane to telegraph school to learn to be a Union Pacific Railroad telegraph operator," he said.
"I worked for them for 12 years and decided the railroad industry was becoming so electronic, with all kinds of new communication things, that I needed to do something else."
That's when he enrolled in Eastern Oregon University, graduating in 1972 with a bachelor of science degree in business and economics. Then he went to work full-time for the National Guard until 1980, when he became the director of financial aid for EOU and continued part-time in the Guard.
He retired from the college in 1997 but continues to do consulting work in distance learning for various colleges and universities.
Johnson is credited with authoring and developing the Guard Office Leadership Development program, called the GOLD program, for short, after the Army began cutting back its ROTC program in colleges. It is accredited across the nation now, Johnson said. The military science program allows students to graduate as an officer with the rank of second lieutenant.
Gen. Bergin, the Oregon National Guard adjutant general, said, "Jack is typical of what I consider the true backbone of our nation's defense a citizen soldier who balances his time in the guard with a full-time career.
"He was one of the people in our command who always strove for something better. He was an ideal choice to be the person responsible for developing the career path (GOLD) program in the state. He was a good warrant officer, a great one."
Johnson served as rodeo coach at Eastern from 1995 to 1999 and as Vets Club adviser from 1983 to 1990.
In his spare time, Johnson likes to travel by horse (he has three) into the wilderness area, especially in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and in the lower Minam area. He still likes to hunt elk but said he does not do any deer hunting anymore.
"Right now, our nine grandchildren are our biggest avocation. We're available whenever they want to include us in their activities," he said.
He married Patricia Lusk in 1959 and they have three children, Katy Smutz of Pendleton, Amy Johnson of Wallowa County and Maggy Willis of La Grande. The names of all three daughters have been submitted for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, Johnson said.
Patricia's heritage traces back to Germany. Her ancestors moved to Russia, where her grandfather joined the White Russian Army, then migrated to the United States in 1880. On Jack's retirement, she received a certificate of appreciation signed by Gen. Eric Shinseki, chief of staff, U.S. Army.
Jack Johnson moved to Oregon from Nebraska in 1946 and Patricia came in 1947.
Jack traces his family back to central North Carolina and southwest Virginia. The Johnsons had a long history of service as citizen soldiers being called out in times of emergency.
"My great, great, great, great grandfather, (Jack Johnson, son of Larkin Johnson) had his first home confiscated by (British Gen. Charles) Cornwallis for his headquarters in Lincoln County, N.C., after the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in January 1780."
Nine months later, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Va., to end the war.
Larkin Johnson (1765-1852) later lived at Wytheville, Va., beginning in 1799-1800. Family gatherings are still held there, and the La Grande branch has attended in recent years.
"I had three great, great, great grandfathers who fought in the militia, including the Revolutionary War. One was Abraham Leedy. Another was named John Mooney. The other was Heinrich Umberger, whose son was also in the Revolutionary War. Ancestors fought in the War of 1812 and in the Civil War."
Another relative, his grandfather's brother, fought against Mexico in 1916.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought great consternation to Johnson.
Except for some Japanese incursions off the West Coast before World War II, he said, "from the Revolutionary War to now, we had never been attacked until Sept. 11. I feel good about being a part of developing a security plan before I retired. The training by the Office of Homeland Defense is really good now. And the National Guard will become the training centers for homeland defense in every community, I believe."
Story by Ray Linker
Photos by Laura Mackie-Hancock