By the time he retired from the Air Force, Russell Johnson had earned the rank of command chief master sergeant, which is the highest enlisted rank position on the base.
According to Johnson, his career began in 1972.
“My wife Joanie and I got married when we were in high school,” said Johnson. “We had a daughter before we graduated, and I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do. I was talking to my stepfather one day, and I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing the military.’ I was just 18.”
Johnson’s stepfather served in the Army and gave his son-in-law some valuable advice as he considered enlisting in the military.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘I was in the Army, and I was always in a tent in Korea, and the Air Force was always in a hotel. Now you tell me which one you want to do,’” said Johnson.
Johnson was born and raised in Burke, South Dakota, but by July 9, 1972, he had relocated to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
According to Johnson, Joanie took care of their family while he was deployed.
“I never worried about Joanie, my wife, she always took care of the family,” said Johnson. “I would go to different countries; I would go all over this world. I would say, ‘I’m leaving today, and who knows when I’m coming back?’ And she would take care of business. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not the veteran— it’s not the soldier, it’s the entire family that joins the Army, joins the Air Force, joins the Marines or joins the Navy.”
Johnson said he was lucky to have had the support he had during his years of service.
“For the active-duty person, to be successful, you need a strong support network. And Joanie and my children were it,” said Johnson.
Johnson said he spent the beginning of his career silently following orders and staying out of trouble.
“I was smart enough in the beginning to just keep my mouth shut and do what I was told to do,” said Johnson. “And life’s pretty simple at that point. By having supervisors— and sometimes you learn more from bad ones, what not to do just by listening.”
According to Johnson, one supervisor in particular was especially influential early on in his career— a man by the name of Larry Summers.
“He gave me the confidence to be able to do what I’ve done,” said Johnson. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten a master’s degree in business, I wouldn’t applied for officer training school. I wouldn’t have become command chief if it hadn’t been for that guy.”
During his career, Johnson worked with both the Venezuelan and Egyptian militaries in their weapons departments, but Johnson remembers his time in Thailand as especially harrowing.
“I went to Thailand, and I’m sitting there eating breakfast the first day, and sweat is pouring off me, and there’s bugs everywhere. There are snakes, and I said, ‘I’m going to die in this country,’” said Johnson.
Clearly, Johnson survived his time in Thailand, and went on to live in Egypt for a year.
“You do not realize what a wonderful country we live in until you’ve lived somewhere else, not visit,” said Johnson. “You live for a year and working with the Egyptian military the Air Force for a year, we had an interpreter who was just a wonderful fellow. Toward the end of my year there, he took me to his home where he had two small boys and a wife in this little bitty place that he was so proud of. And before we were done eating, he asked me to come to a corner of that room— that house was a room— and he said, ‘I must show you something,’ and he opened the drawer and out came an American flag. Him, as an Egyptian, holding an American flag was not something he wanted to be caught with, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I want you to take this American flag and I want you to take my two small boys and when you return to the United States, I want you to take them with you. Because in America, they might stand a chance. They won’t here.”
According to Johnson, his time overseas and his interaction with the Egyptian interpreter gave him an entirely new perspective and appreciation for life in the States.
“You know, we throw rocks at ourselves, and the United States, about our country and our differences, but until you have lived somewhere else, you do not realize what it is,” said Johnson. “You have an awful lot of people who are paper patriots, I call them, who want to change, who want to be whatever they want to be. Go somewhere else. Try that out for a while.”
Johnson’s service and his family’s years of sacrifice is just another example of the many legacies of those who have served in the armed forces to protect the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
To read more about these American heroes, visit the Veterans Honor Banner Project website here.