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Running in and from Iraq
Five Wars – A Soldier’s Journy to Peace

When:  August 11, 5:30 p.m.
Sittig Hall, Kleman Plaza

The record will show Fred Johnson and I finished 8th and 9th in the 2002 Pine Run 20Kand I suspect that was close to the beginning of our friendship.  The next 3 years would fly by and we would run the trails and race each other often.   Fred’s background in the army led to many interesting conversations. He thinks carefully about things and his answers to questions always have substance.  General David H. Petraeus said “Fred Johnson is one of the best and most inspirational leaders with whom I have served.” I say, Amen!

Sometime in mid to early 2006 the shared runs would halt and be replaced by email exchanges from Iraq.  Fred is Army to the core having served 29 years, but this tour of duty would be different.   While he was anxious to prove himself, there was also no way to know what was coming. Fred wrote the following shortly after his arrival in Iraq:

Today, I felt a type of adrenalin I hadn't experienced since the last time I jumped out of an airplane.  It's not to worry ... I've trained for this my whole life.  I'm just validating what I already know about myself and what I have to do. 

Fred would see the best and the worst of war during this tour.  Identify and remove the enemy, then work to rebuild the infrastructure of normal life.  He learned the value of chai and a strong kiss-like-you mean it on the check when you meet local Iraqi men. But he also experienced the ruthlessness of the war fought with an enemy he rarely saw.  The loss of life, especially those he felt duty bound to protect, brought pain and grief.

Fred was determined to run every day in Iraq and I think he did.  Where he ran depended on the conditions, the likelihood of a mortar landing on his course, and whether a sniper would get a get clean shot at him certainly affected his choices.  In perhaps my favorite chapter in his Five Wars book, “Bread,” Fred tells of his trail running and racing in up-state New York with his best friend Joe Fenty, including racing the Virgil Mountain Madness Trail Run, 30K of gnarly single-track trail.  But while the running was necessary for sanity, it was not sufficient alone to maintain sanity.  The bread story has 2 parts, one heart breaking and one full of hope.  In early 2006, Fenty became commander of a squadron and deployed to Afghanistan.  His only daughter was 28 days old when Fred’s running companion’s helicopter crashed during a storm killing Joe Fenty and 9 other soldiers.  Clearly, it hit Fred, who served as a pallbearer, hard.  He would leave 2 months later for Iraq himself, missing his best friend.

Running was extremely tough on the day one of Fred’s squadron’s NCOs was shot and killed by a sniper, leaving behind a wife and 6-month-old son.  As Fred describes, “I ran the morning after, but really didn't want to until I saw a card Maddie (his daughter) sent me sticking out from a stack of letters Laura and Mad have written me.  It was a card with a picture of the Mona Lisa, and inside Maddie wrote: "Live one day at a time and make it a masterpiece."   Fred wrote in turn: “I didn't want to run but I did, knowing that by starting my day in this way, it is the first perfect stroke of a masterpiece.”  The passage of time has made very clear that Laura and Maddie, wife and daughter, are what really got Fred through.

Gary Griffin and I (and others) kept up the email traffic and encouragement back then. I am not sure though we understood the full pain behind the email that popped up on our computer screens on March 22, 2007. It began: “I lost my first Soldier today…. when an IED was command detonated, killing him instantly.” Fred meticulously described the memorial service.  The most troubling part of the email was where he explains how he believes his actions put Sergeant Freeman Gardner at risk.

“Last night at a synchronization meeting, one of the Iraqi Generals said he wanted to have the trash moved from the streets …. because the trash hides IEDs.  It wasn't a planned operation but I ordered the Engineer Company to change mission and conduct route sanitation.  The Soldier died pulling security for his squad leader who was directing where to push the trash.”   And then I kitted up, jumped in the commander's Stryker so I could see where the Soldier died and I pulled security from the back of the commander's truck while we cleared the rest of the trash on the street. It made me feel much better and I think I'm OK now.

I responded saying there was no reason to blame himself.  I knew Fred was hurting, but I did not know how much until I read the book.  In reality, “I think I’m OK now” really meant, “I need help.”  And so, I suspect the fact he didn’t get the right help is why he was sitting in the bar, years later, figuring out the best place to drive his truck into the Ohio river.  It took Laura’s hard effort to finally get Fred the help he needed.

The soldier’s duties are more complex than ever.  We cannot afford to let them be isolated. August 11, is a chance to show you care and to have meaning full discussion.  I hope you will join us at 5:30 pm at Sittig Hall to meet Fred and Laura and to talk about his book and his experience serving his county.