Whatever else Anthony Johnson could say about his military service, it at least gave him a friend who cared enough to hide Johnson’s pistol away from him at a time when he might have used it to end his own life.
It may very well be the reason the Army veteran is still here today.
Johnson was grateful. But in many ways the man with suicidal thoughts swimming in his head bore a sharp contrast to the one who had joined the Oregon National Guard with enthusiasm a decade prior. The one who exemplified the Army’s values. The one who saw nothing but a long and rewarding career stretched out before him—a place where he could do good things.
That was before Afghanistan.
A means to an end
Johnson was a peaceful man. He still is. He didn’t join the Army to go to war. He did it to escape poverty.
It was 1997. The 19-year-old was studying music at Clackamas Community College.
“And then I ran out of money,” said Johnson, who today works as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District.
It just so happened that Johnson also needed a little discipline. And he had a deep family history of military service. His dad had served in Vietnam. His uncle was still in the National Guard. Johnson was talking to that uncle one evening when he decided to put his future in the hands of the Army.
“He was like, ‘So, when are you joining the National Guard?’” Johnson said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing that tomorrow. So the next day I went in.”
Despite making the choice largely out of necessity, Johnson was excited.
“I felt like I was joining something larger than myself where I could do good work,” he said.
Johnson scored a 93 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple choice test the military uses to determine a person’s qualification for enlistment. With those marks, he could have virtually any job he wanted.
He settled on one of the only two jobs that offered a signing bonus: unit supply specialist. Then he was off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.
He would spend the next several years working at a manufacturing plant while learning the Army supply world on his drill weekends and during training exercises.
In 2002, he volunteered for a six-month deployment to Egypt. He learned a lot. He proved himself as a supply specialist, at one point stepping up to fill in for a superior. He mostly enjoyed the experience.
He still has bottles of perfume and trinkets that he took home with him.
Upon his return, Johnson, feeling confident in himself and eager for advancement, remained on active duty and requested professional development training. He wanted to become a warrant officer and property book officer—a position that oversees a unit’s supply management and accounts for property.
“I knew my stuff,” Johnson said. “I knew where to go to find the answer.”
His unit sent him to Fort Hood, Texas, for training that would prepare him to be a sergeant—a frontline leader. Johnson excelled.
“I think at that time I felt pretty good about myself,” he recalled.
The feeling wouldn’t last.
Winning hearts and minds
In the meantime, Johnson reconnected with an old high school friend, Brenda, and in early 2004, the couple welcomed a child into the world: Ethan. But Johnson had also committed himself to a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.
Two months later, he and Brenda married. Two more months and Johnson was boarding a plane.
Before he left, he sat down and recorded video messages for his son and other members of his family—a last goodbye in case he didn’t make it home.
“That was tough. But you had to prepare,” said Johnson. “I was going to war. I didn’t know what was going to happen over there.”
In Afghanistan, Johnson joined a 16-person team as an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army. Just like in the beginning, he set out to do good.
“My mission was to win hearts and minds,” he said.
During their first weeks in Afghanistan, while outside their forward operating base to purchase cell phones, Johnson’s convoy stopped to help at the scene of a car accident. One man lay on the ground unconscious. Johnson pulled security and kept people away.
The group had been cautioned to look out for bicycles wrapped with wires—a sign of an improvised explosive device. Easier said than done.
“You’d see those all over the place,” Johnson said.
Luckily, nothing bad happened. Quite the opposite. The team revived the man, and an ambulance took him away.
“That felt good. We provided this service. That was neat,” Johnson said before a long pause.
The Afghan millionaire
In Afghanistan, Johnson led classes for Afghan army supply specialists and taught them to sustain a troop force in the field. He felt like he was making a difference.
He spent a couple of months in Qalat, a city in the country’s southern Zabul Province. Rockets descended into the encampment regularly—a sort of protest, Johnson figures, to a new Afghan base going up in the immediate area. But even when he and others responded to an attack on a provincial reconstruction team, a type of civilian-military unit, Johnson never fired his weapon.
“I wasn’t there to kill people,” he said.
Before long, leadership charged Johnson with a new mission: travelling around the country by helicopter to pay Afghan soldiers who were working with U.S. special forces troops. So Johnson walked into a contracting office in Kandahar and accepted a black backpack full of money—more than 10 million afghani, the equivalent of about $250,000 U.S. dollars at the time.
“I had over a quarter-million dollars in my backpack,” Johnson recalled.
Every eight days, Johnson travelled to a different forward operating base. Once he had finished his payroll mission, units used him as an extra body. He would pull security. He would man radios.
Then, one night, an Afghan soldier motioned Johnson to step inside a cook shed with him and two other men. Verbal urging turned physical. The soldier grabbed Johnson. Johnson had to wrestle the man to get away.
“We’re in Kandahar. That’s Taliban country,” Johnson said. “Who knows what would have happened had I entered that cook shack. Because everyone wanted to be my friend. I was carrying a ton of cash. That was a really scary moment.
"That got packed away with all the other traumas.”
Later, an Army officer on Johnson’s team tried to task him with work that was outside Johnson’s scope of responsibility. As punishment for Johnson’s refusal to do the work, the officer tried to cancel Johnson’s mid-tour leave.
Little by little, Johnson’s experiences began to chip away at him.
“I took that home”
One of Johnson’s most painful memories stems from the death of a special forces soldier during his first deployment. Johnson attended the memorial. He lined up with others to stand before a pair of boots, a rifle and a helmet—a battlefield cross to honor a slain troop—and say his thanks.
“Seeing how much that human meant to his commander and watching him tear up over his teammate—his guy,” said Johnson. “I took that home. A lot of that survivor’s guilt comes into play.”
Johnson’s mission was to learn his role in Afghanistan, go back home to his unit in Oregon, train members of his brigade, and then return to Afghanistan with them. So in 2006, he found himself deployed once again. Another team. Another mission. Another year.
This time, Johnson returned to Afghanistan with new baggage. During pre-deployment training in Mississippi, his brother informed him that his wife, Brenda, had been hanging out in bars with other men every weekend.
“That practically drove me insane,” Johnson said. “I was constantly trying to call home. It just kept hitting in my head over and over and over again.
“There was this palpable fear. Death was on the other side of those Hesco barriers, and I didn’t know if I was gonna die—if this next shot out the gate was gonna be my last one.”
Meanwhile, Johnson dealt with a separate struggle: A Navy officer was threatening to demote him for responding to a question from a distance instead of reporting to the officer’s desk at attention.
Ensnared in multiple mental battles, Johnson finally snapped. The emotions raging inside of him boiled over. Trauma from his childhood resurfaced.
Then the darkest possible thought swept over him.
“The thought that was going through my head was, ‘Wouldn’t my family be better off without me?’ Or ‘Your family would be better off without you. Hey look, you have this pistol. Look, you have this ammunition. Just end it,’” Johnson said. “That voice inside my head said, ‘Don’t be a pussy. Pull the trigger.’”
Johnson requested a compassionate reassignment—basically, a plea to go home early and sort out his affairs. Leadership denied it.
“That second tour was bad,” Johnson said.
The diminished man
Johnson returned from his second Afghanistan tour in mid-2007.
“I took off my uniform, and I didn’t put it back on,” he said. “I let my beard grow. I called my unit every month when it was time for drill and said, ‘I won’t be able to make it. I’m with my family.’
“I was diminished after my experience at war.”
Johnson was eventually discharged from the Army, but his trauma lingered.
“I wanted to be in 20 years,” he said. “Already had 10 years in. I was halfway there. I had this idea that I was gonna have this long career.”
He stayed on at the manufacturing plant and made it through the days with prescription medication and energy drinks.
One year after his return from Afghanistan, Johnson took a health assessment survey administered by the Army. Finally, he was honest. He had had suicidal and homicidal thoughts. At the same time, his relationship with Brenda was dissolving.
A journey to heal
The thing that set Johnson on a 10-year path to recovery started out like a final blow. Brenda was hanging out at the neighbors’ house. Johnson couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was the hypervigilance from a combat deployment, Johnson thought, but he sensed something bad.
When Brenda came home, Johnson asked her to leave. She raised her fists at him and, out of instinct to defend himself, he grabbed her wrists. The two wrestled. Brenda left. Fifteen minutes later, Johnson had calmed himself down. But the police had shown up. They took Johnson to jail.
It was Johnson’s first arrest, but he was subject to mandatory counseling. That was when he found the C.A.D.R.E. Program, a counseling program run by a woman named Julie and her Army veteran husband.
Through the program, Johnson completed a year’s worth of "feeling and behavioral journals," which taught him to use words and non-violent communication to talk about his feelings.
“Julie has said that I’m one of her successes,” Johnson said.
Johnson also reached out to the Returning Veterans Project and spent a year seeing a counselor who specialized in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy to work through his traumas.
He started going back to school.
Then, in 2010, while on a nighttime bike ride event in Portland with friends from work, he met Lacye Kebschull-Fulmer, a professional hula hoop dance instructor. Kebschull-Fulmer was dancing on top of a bus in a parking lot. Johnson was drawn to it.
“I wanted to move like that,” he said. Days later, he typed out an email to Kebschull-Fulmer.
“It was like, ‘I just got back from deployment. I’m trying to find myself through joyful stuff, and this was something that really touched me,’” Kebschull-Fulmer recalled.
Johnson started showing up at her classes.
“The hula hoop was really how I started developing a compassionate mindset for myself,” he said. “It helped quiet the critic inside. I knew when I was inside the hoop, I was safe. I hadn’t felt safe since I was five.”
Over the years, Johnson came back to life.
Kebschull-Fulmer had taught Johnson and the rest of her class a life-saving metaphor: Dropping the hula hoop wasn’t something to be upset about.
“It’s something to be celebrated because you’re a beginner, and you’re moving forward and also learning,” she explained.
So it was with life. So it was with failures and struggles.
After 10 years, she has come to know Johnson as a sweet and gentle person.
“I think that part of him had gotten buried a little bit,” she said. “And so it was that part of him that he was kind of resurrecting.”
She watched Johnson find community. She watched him blossom into his own version of himself.
Once, Kebschull-Fulmer said, Johnson brought his mom to a class. Afterward, his mom cupped Kebschull-Fulmer’s face and kissed her on the cheek with an earnest message: “Thank you so much for what you’ve done for my son.”
Johnson also attended Shamanic animal journeying sessions with a local Reiki master in Portland named Michelle Hawk. The practice, done while meditating to drum beats, encourages people to get in touch with spirit animal guides that are believed to help one heal.
Today, Johnson has his animal guides tattooed along his left arm: a red-tailed hawk, a bear, a tiger, and an owl.
Through all the different classes, therapies and communities that have helped Johnson along his journey of healing, one underlying need has remained constant for him: learning to love himself again.
“What I was experiencing was negative self-talk. I was experiencing a lot of self-hate,” he said. “I wasn’t loving myself. I wasn’t caring about myself. I was telling myself all these terrible things. I realized that I needed to build that compassionate mindset for myself.”
Today, he has his master’s degree in business administration. He has a job he’s grateful for. He has community. He has friends.
“I’m grateful and a bit proud of where I am today,” Johnson said