Family, friends remember Sgt. James Johnston
By BRITTANY FHOLER
While others across the country wore red, white and blue on Thursday, friends, family and neighbors gathered in their Hawaiian shirts at the Johnston home in Copperas Cove to honor and celebrate the life of Sgt. James Gregory Johnston on the birthday of the country he died defending.
Johnston and Master Sgt. Michael B. Riley died June 25 in Urzugan Province, Afghanistan from wounds sustained from small arms fire while engaged in combat operations, according to a press release from Fort Hood.
Johnston, 24, whose home of record is listed as Trumansburg, New York, was assigned to 79th Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), 71st Ordnance Group at Fort Hood. Johnston had moved to Copperas Cove in February, a week before deploying in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
Johnston entered active-duty military service in July 2013 as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist. According to his wife, Krista, he joined immediately after graduating high school and had wanted to join for as long as he had been able to talk.
James and Krista had found out they were expecting a baby the day before he deployed. Krista said this was the first time in their seven years of being together that she had seen him cry. Krista announced on Facebook to friends and family that their daughter will be named Jamie Avery-Grace Johnston to honor her father. Krista shared that they were able to find out that they were having a girl before the unthinkable happened and that Johnston was even more excited.
“He would have made the best father in the world,” Krista said.
On Thursday, Independence Day, the Johnston home was packed with friends, family members, neighbors and friends of friends, each wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the request of Johnston’s family. In a Facebook post, Krista shared a request for people to wear Hawaiian shirts on the Fourth as a nod to Johnston and to include the hashtags #hawaiianshirtsforjj, #hawaiiansforjames, #hawaiianshirtsforjames.
Since the initial request, social media has blown up with people from all over the world- civilians and military servicemembers- wearing their Hawaiian shirts for Johnston.
“My husband was the most fun-loving, outgoing, charismatic, sarcastic guy you’d ever meet. He was the life of the party and always knew how to make you feel better,” Krista said. “He was dedicated and driven and anything he put his mind to, he was able to accomplish. He would study and/or practice until it became second nature to him, and then he would happily share his knowledge with anyone that wanted to listen.”
Johnston started his tradition of wearing Hawaiian shirts on Fridays about a year ago as a joke but continued as people started joining him and recognizing him as the guy who always wore Hawaiian shirts, Krista said.
“The shirts were always bright, bold patterns that matched his personality perfectly,” she added.
She said she never expected the resulting show of support when she first made the post asking everyone to wear their Hawaiian shirts.
“The outpouring of love and support from absolutely everyone, even those who didn’t know Jamie, are remembering him in a way that will forever make us all smile,” she said. “I just wish everyone could have known him the way I did, and they would know exactly how much all of this truly means to me. It’s been the only thing getting me through this.”
In the days following Johnston’s death, several fundraisers were set up to help the family.
One GoFundMe, started by Ana Gabriela Vigil Rendon, reached its goal of $1,000 to cover the cost of travel to Texas for her boyfriend, who is mentioned as a close friend, with any remaining funds to be donated to Krista.
Another GoFundMe, titled the Baby Registry Fund for Our Lost EOD Brother at https://www.gofundme.com/baby-registry-fund-for-our-lost-eod-brother, started by Tessa Bradshaw in Fort Riley, Kansas, has raised $23,700 of its $85,000 goal to cover the Johnston’s baby registry as well as provide extra funds for diapers and meals and start a college fund for Jamie.
“This is no time for Krista to have to worry about anything, and I’d like to help make things as easy as possible for her and her family during this tragic time,” wrote Bradshaw on the GoFundMe page.
There is also an Amazon baby shower gift registry, which has seen 201 of 218 items on the registry purchased. To find the registry, people can go to https://www.amazon.com/baby-reg and search for James and Krista Johnston.
On Facebook, family friend Holly Bee organized a fundraiser called the Sgt Johnston Family Fund, which raised $6,983 in seven days by July 4. In this fundraiser’s post, Bee mentioned that a benefit will be held in Galveston on July 27 at Drunken Monkees, located at the corner of 20th St and Strand, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., featuring live music, food and auction items. Johnston’s mother, Meghan Billiot owns a business in Galveston.
Krista said it took a few days before she heard about the fundraiser and baby registry, but when she did, she immediately started crying.
“I just have no words to thank everyone enough for their kindness and support they have shown myself, our unborn daughter and the family, and I can absolutely say that anytime anyone else is in need, there will not be anything I wouldn’t do to help them the same way they’re helping me,” Krista said.
Johnston’s father, Richard Johnston, wore a Texas flag button up short sleeve shirt to the Fourth of July celebration and spoke of how proud he was of his son.
“I raised my mentor,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe how I can lift him to that level of honor. I don’t have the vocabulary, but he is my mentor.”
Johnston was extremely proud to be Texan, evident by the Texas flag hanging in his garage on one wall, with the Battle of Gonzales flag hanging on another. He also loved his country.
“He is a true American warrior,” Richard said.
Richard said he estimated that he didn’t know about 90 percent of the people at the barbeque, adding that his son never knew a stranger, though.
“He was always out to help anybody he could,” Richard said. “He always brought a smile, always brought a laugh, and he loved life. He had a passion for life and his passion for this country, what we represent, what we stand for, it’s evident from what he sacrificed. It’s evident from his feelings and his beliefs.”
Richard said that he was curious to see how Monday’s service, which will be open to the public, would look like. He said he thought there would be so many friends and family that show up out of respect for Johnston’s heroism and valor.
“It’s been a rough week. It’s been a lot of highs and lows,” Richard said. “I’ve cried a lot of tears to the point that I feel like I’ve been dehydrated, and I want to say that 99.5 percent of my tears are not out of the sorrow for the loss of my son, but out of pride because of what he represented, what he fought for.”
Johnston’s wife and family and friends greeted Johnston as his body landed on American soil at Dover Airfield on June 28.
Then today, July 5, he finally arrived back in Texas, the state he grew up in, with another dignified transfer ceremony held at the Robert Gray Army Airfield on Fort Hood.
Friends and family members wore their Hawaiian shirts yet again to welcome home their hero.
Johnston’s casket was transferred from the plane to a Crawford-Bowers Funeral Home hearse before being escorted by the Killeen Police Department to the funeral home in Killeen. As the procession traveled east on I-14, members of the community gathered on the shoulder of the road and waved American flags to show their support.
Johnston’s awards and decorations include a Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Korea Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Combat Action Badge, Senior Explosive Ordnance Disposal Badge and Explosive Ordnance Badge, according to a Fort Hood news release.
A public memorial service will be held Monday at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Killeen, with a memorial to be held Wednesday on Fort Hood, according to a Facebook post by Krista.