The Becoming of a Man

Published 8:16 am Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Editor’s Note: Students from Elizabethton High School recently worked on a project in which they had to write profile pieces on local veterans in the community. The Elizabethton Star will be publishing one piece a day, highlighting both the work these veterans have put into their communities and the students who have spent time and energy telling their stories.

Maggie Johnson

EHS Student

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March 13, 2004, Platoon Sergeant Patrick Johnson was leading a convoy out to escort another unit from Alashad to Remhadi. The day had started out wrong. “Everything was going wrong, everyone knew we were coming,” he says. The civilian car in front of them was obviously trying to slow them down, but that wasn’t unusual. As the convoy slowly approached the traffic circle, Johnson noticed that there was no one on the streets. He grabbed the mic from the radio operator and told his men to have their heads on a swivel. As he handed the mic back, an IED exploded.

Patrick Sean Johnson was the average small town teenager who played sports and hung out with friends. During his senior year, he decided to follow his older brothers footsteps and join the Marines. “Everybody in my family joins the military, that’s just a growing process of a man in my family,” Johnson says while talking about why he joined. When he graduated from Elizabethton High School, he began working some construction jobs but soon began working at Carter County Sheriff’s Department. Patrick married his high school sweetheart, Angie Colbaugh, and began working as the night shift detective at work.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Patrick and Angie were sleeping when the phone rang. It was Johnson’s brother who immediately told him to turn on the TV. They began talking about how horrible of an accident this tragedy was. Then, the second plane hit. “I was ready to deploy immediately, I was angry,” Johnson says while staring off the back porch. Patrick knew that he would be deployed soon, he was just waiting on the call.

August 30, 2002, Patrick and Angie welcomed their first child into the world. I was the first of two children. Christmas day, 2003, Johnson and his company got the call they had been waiting for. They would be deployed to the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. “Your mother and I had been together almost every day, other than when I was on active duty or on a mission somewhere, and suddenly for almost a year I don’t have that support network,” he states as he explains how hard it was to leave his family. Most nights, my dad was the only person who could make me stop crying and put me to sleep. How could his young family adapt?

Johnson’s job when he got to Iraq was an Infantry Platoon Sergeant. I asked him what a Platoon Sergeant does and his reply is, “You more or less go out looking for trouble.” After he says this, I realize that there had been a high chance of my dad not making it back or coming home without serious injuries. I began thinking how differently my life would be if my dad wouldn’t have overcome the odds. I would be a totally different person.

After Johnson woke up from the blast of the IED, he realized he was the only one that was awake and not injured badly. He got on the radio and called other squads to set up security around his convoy. Then he went to retrieve his injured personnel from the trucks. Johnson pulled two out of the vehicle and headed to get the young man from the gunner position of the truck. My father had always looked out for this guy because he had gone to school with my dad’s younger sister. When he got to him, he had taken the biggest impact of the explosion. “Something I’ll never forget is when I got to him,” he pauses as if trying to figure how to say the next part without reliving the memory again. “I could see the other side of the road through his face.” So Johnson pulled him down and placed him in his vehicle so he could watch over and protect him until the medics arrived. This day was my dad’s birthday. Most of my most memorable birthdays were the ones where I got the toy or present that I wanted. My dad’s most memorable birthday was the one where he got hit with an IED. No one was killed, but many lives were impacted.

Silence hung over the porch while I was trying to find my next question. My dad just sits and just stares off as if replaying that day in his head. When I found the question, I asked him what helped him get through the hard days. “My best friends I had in the world were all the guys I was in the Marines with, but more than anything, my faith,” was his response. Some nights, my dad could call our house by using a satellite phone. My mom was on the phone with him one night, and heard a loud noise which my dad said was just some wood that got dropped, but he had to get off the phone right then. Now we know that that was really the enemy attacking their base. How do you tell your wife and kid that you’re not even safe on your base?

“What was the hardest part about coming home,” I ask. He sits and thinks for a moment as he does before every answer. “Feeling like we had left something undone, we almost had a feeling of ‘leave us here and let us finish’,” he responds. I wondered if he didn’t want to come home? Obviously he didn’t want to stay there, but did he feel guilty for not being able to finish what they had started? New company took his company’s spot in Iraq and they headed back to East Tennessee. He tells me that he felt bad for the newer, younger guys who had taken their spot because they were going to have to learn everything that my dad’s company had already learned.

“It took awhile to be able to relax in my own skin,” he explains. When he got home, he began working night shift patrol. My dad says that he was constantly waiting for shots to be fired or an IED to explode while patrolling in Carter County. He didn’t think that the people back home would do that, but after you’ve lived with that mindset everyday for a year, it becomes a habit.

My next question I asked was if his relationships changed. His response explained why some of the friends he used to be close with only get a wave when he sees them now. “I had friends who would say ‘oh you need to come over and play this video game with me, it’s just like being there,’” he pauses. “It’s not like being there, I just came from there, I know what it is and it’s not a video game. There is no reset button.” My dad withdrew himself from those friends who are now just acquaintances.

“Do you view anything differently now?” His answer surprises me. I thought he might answer with politics, but he answers with a water fountain. “I appreciate a water fountain because after all your water has been sitting on pallets in the 120 degrees heat all day, a cold drink really means something,” was his response. I then ask what his first thought was when he got back home (in America). “How good it smelled.” This answer was odd but he explains how Iraq has this looming odor of burning trash and sheep manure. I begin to think about how privileged we are to have such clean air.

My final two questions really summed up my interview. I asked my dad to give me a one word summary of his whole experience of the Marines, including his deployment. He responded for the first time without pausing, “A blessing. I shouldn’t be sitting here right now, but the Lord got me out of some bad situations for some reason.” My question that I asked next also got an immediate response. I asked if he could, would he do it all over again. “Absolutely; in a heartbeat,” he says with assurance. After most questions he gave some eye contact, but after these two questions, there was solid eye contact that was not easily broken.

We finish the interview and my dad goes inside and begins to get his work clothes ready for the next day. I turn off my recording app on my phone while looking at the time and realizing we had been talking for almost an hour. I stare off my back porch into the moonlit sky and think how blessed our country is to be filled with millions of soldiers who gave the same sacrifice that my dad did. I think about what my dad always says, “all gave some, but some gave all.”