BROOKINGS – Army veteran Connie Johnson, coordinator for Veterans Services, South Dakota State University, can relate to student-veterans coming into the Veterans Affairs Office for information or assistance.
She’s been there, done that: combat in Iraq, wounded in action (Purple Heart recipient), battle with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
The Elkton native, the youngest of five, graduated from high school there in 2002. She’s the third veteran in her family. Her dad was drafted and served during the Korean War; her older brother joined the Army in 1999 and served four years as an infantryman. He later attended SDSU and completed the Army ROTC program. Today he’s a major in the South Dakota Army National Guard.
Johnson herself joined the Army as a Military Police member when she turned 18, one month after 9/11. She left for basic training six days after high school graduation.
“It wasn’t a huge stretch for me,” she said of joining the Army. “I think the events of 9/11 really pushed me in that direction.”
Following nine weeks of boot camp and 12 weeks training as an MP, she was assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in November 2002. She was one of seven women in the 350-man 101st MP Combat Company that deployed to Iraq in February 2003.
Johnson was a turret gunner on an armored gun truck. Her armament included a grenade launcher, a semi-automatic weapon and, as an MP, a .9mm pistol as a sidearm.
She did a lot of truck convoy escort duty, making runs in and out of Turkey. She was also tasked with providing personal security for high-ranking officers. One of those latter assignments during her last month in Iraq, January 2004, would be her last in-country. She was assigned to a personal security run, taking an American general from an air base to a mosque, a run of about 5 or 6 miles by a four-truck convoy.
“At that time IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were not as big as what they are now,” Johnson explained. “They were just kind of up and coming. We’d run the same route many times. It was during our return that our convoy was targeted for an IED explosion.”
Wounded in action
“Because I was a rear gunner, I was facing away from the blast,” the then 19-year-old soldier said of the IED that changed her life. Since there was no one around at the time of the explosion, she surmises that it was remotely detonated.
“The gunner in the truck in front of me got hit and then I got hit, with shrapnel,” she said. “He took a lot of blast to the face. I got hit in the back of the head.”
Johnson suffered a concussion, was disoriented, and her head and neck were severely lacerated, with a lot of bleeding. She also suffered some nerve damage to her face.
At the time of the attack, the convoy was about a mile from an airfield that had an Army mobile hospital in tents. Following the attack, the four trucks immediately sped there.
The other gunner with the facial wound was quickly medevaced to a higher echelon hospital. Johnson was treated right there; her wounds required both internal and external sutures and she was given a shot of morphine.
She spent only a few days in hospital before being discharged. On her first day there, she was given a Purple Heart by a general, who pinned it to her pillow. She was also able to speak with her oldest brother at home via a satellite phone. Ten days later her sutures were removed.
“I was injured; I was treated; I was discharged to light duty; and then I was back in the turret in two weeks,” she explained. “Up there manning the guns, making the same kind of runs.”
But all was not well.
Signs, symptoms start
After returning stateside to Fort Campbell, Johnson began routine MP duties, similar to what a civilian police officer might perform, such as routine traffic oversight.
But on leave and a return visit to Elkton, she began noticing “significant symptoms of PTSD.”
“At the time I didn’t know what it was,” she said. She viewed what was happening as the “normalcy” that was experienced by troops returning from Iraq. It wasn’t.
“I’ve been able to learn more about the symptoms and behavior of PTSD,” Johnson said. “Looking back, I had a lot of them: intrusive memory about the incident, avoiding certain things that trigger feelings of anxiety and fear.
“Cars on the side of the highway, debris and garbage were triggers for me; something could pop out and scare me – at any moment. Even though it wasn’t going to happen, that’s just how I felt.”
Johnson cited other behaviors of PTSD, that include impulsive decision making, drinking heavily, nightmares. She was having them.
Having enlisted for five years, she had three years of active duty remaining when she returned from Iraq. She served one year.
Then within three months of meeting someone – a fellow soldier and a medic – she married and became pregnant; she had the option of having a baby and completing her active duty or serving the remainder of her enlistment in the inactive reserve. She chose the latter. The marriage ended in divorce.
“It (getting married) was very quick, very impulsive decision making,” Johnson explained. “I wasn’t aware that I was doing that at the time.” But in retrospect she was able to tie that decision back to PTSD.
“Divorce is huge in the military culture,” she added, noting that she’s not sensitive about discussing her divorce. “You get married in a lot of different situations and that kind of thing. I have a daughter from that marriage. I learned a lot from it, so I’m not sensitive about it.”
She noted that her former husband is “a good man.”
Reaching out after 10 years
From 2007 to 2012, Johnson attended SDSU, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and human sciences.
“I went straight through, using the G.I. Bill, which I earned from serving,” she said. “It was awesome.”
During this time she was experiencing signs and symptoms of PTSD, that included isolation, transition and overactivity.
“I knew they were happening, but I didn’t want to admit that they were happening to me,” she said.
Citing over-activity, Johnson said, “Not only was I attending school full-time, I got re-married and had a baby during that time and worked – all at the same time. I was running at 100 mph.”
The pace finally overwhelmed her.
“It wasn’t until 2014 that I reached out for the first time,” she said. “It was almost 10 years after I left the service. … It had gotten so bad.”
It was time to reach out. She did: to the Wounded Warrior Project.
“Why? Because when I was on my computer at work, an ad popped up for them,” Johnson explained. “I was struggling with things emotionally. I didn’t tell anybody, but I was.”
She didn’t think she qualified for the program, believing “that you had to be severally injured.” But she checked it out. She did.
“They connected me with one of their recovery specialists,” she said. She was flown to Colorado and took part in a Wounded Warrior three-day “Odyssey event” with a dozen other injured veterans.
“That was the first time I’d ever met anybody like me,” she said. “I’d never known anyone else who had been hurt, anyone who had PTSD, because I wasn’t telling anyone. I wasn’t looking for anybody.”
In a classroom setting, the group learned how the body responds to trauma, the signs and symptoms of PTSD, and resources in the area that can be reached out to. The classroom activity was then tied to outdoor activities.
Laughing, Johnson said that she returned to Brookings “worse than I left.”
But she returned to additional Odyssey sessions “to continue that growth.” She was set up for additional counseling services. And she got counseling at the VA in Watertown.
Waited too long
On the job at SDSU, Johnson’s a “school-certifying official,” making sure “veterans get all the benefits they are entitled to.”
A veteran herself, she’s a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Purple Heart Chapter in Sioux Falls.
Finally, as a combat veteran, she shares her experiences with other veterans, especially those like her who have been there, done that.
“My experience in combat is something I would never give back,” Johnson said. “But I would like to do the recovery differently. I waited too long. I was too afraid to say anything for a really long time, because of how I thought others would perceive me.
“Use your resources, for sure. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local VA, or local VFW or your local veterans’ chapter on campus.
“We probably know where you can find those different things or set you in the right direction: for the Wounded Warrior Project, or Warriors Never Give Up, or Wounded Warriors In Action, or the Bonfire Project, which are all designed kind of like the Wounded Warrior Project. It might be just what you needed.
“I felt it was easy being a soldier, because you live it, you breath it, it’s who you are. The hardest part is being a veteran, because you have to advocate for yourself and you have to figure it out for yourself.
“I think PTSD recovery is lifelong, for sure; because there are always triggers.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]