TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. >> On a late summer Saturday, a procession of fire engines, motorcycles and squad cars escorted a van down Main Street, greeted by clusters of flag-waving folks. By the time the caravan had arrived at the American Legion hall, a crowd had gathered; lines of police, firefighters and the military parted to form a path of honor.
Krista Johnston stepped from the van — an impossibly young widow. She wore her husband’s favorite blue-and-pink aloha shirt; it seemed too big even over her pregnant belly.
Sgt. James Johnston, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, had been killed along with a Green Beret on June 25 in Uruzgan Province in south-central Afghanistan. Two months later, his adopted hometown had come together over a holiday weekend to pay tribute, and to say goodbye.
In fact, Johnston hadn’t lived here long. But he’d quickly adopted the rituals and rhythms of small-town life. He was No. 55, a tenacious lineman for the Trumansburg Blue Raiders, taking the field under the Friday night lights. He was the gung-ho volunteer firefighter. He was JJ, Jamie or Texas (a nickname he’d acquired because he constantly boasted about his roots).
He also was the loyal friend, the comic relief, the aloha shirt aficionado, the blisteringly honest high school sweetheart-turned-husband of Krista, whose own father was so fond of him he called him the “son I never had.”
And now, he was Trumansburg’s contribution to the list of about 2,300 American dead in the war in Afghanistan.
Those deaths have been easy to overlook. Though the recent cancellation of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban has attracted headlines, Afghanistan’s war has long been relegated to news briefs. It’s the nation’s longest war — the youngest enlistees weren’t even born 18 years ago when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and the hunt began for Osama bin Laden. But the bloodshed has seemed far distant, unless it claimed a son, a friend, a lover.
With its celebration of James Gregory Johnston, the war came home to this hamlet in upstate New York.
At the legion hall, 24-year-old Krista watched the time-honored military traditions: the 21-gun salute, the playing of taps and the presentation of a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. The next day, the hall had been transformed for a baby shower with towering piles of gifts amid pink and blue balloons, as Krista entered wearing a Hawaiian floral dress with a white-and-gold “mother-to-be” ribbon tied around her midsection.
At the intersection of life, death and a never-ending war, there is this: a love story.
It seemed inevitable James Johnston would become a soldier.
As a toddler, he’d play in the triple-degree Texas summers in cargo shorts and heavy-duty camouflage, digging foxholes in his front yard. His mother, Meghan Billiot, recalls he once asked to have a toy driver’s license created for him with the designation “Special Forces” and code name Silver Falcon.
Jamie sometimes wore Army fatigues for Halloween; other times, he was Robin Hood or Superman. His costumes varied, his message didn’t. “He was always that person who was saving somebody,” his mother says. “He always wanted to stand up for people who were the underdog.”
He was comfortable around guns; his father, Richard, bought him his first rifle at age 10 and he became an expert marksman.
The military suited him, too. “He liked the fraternity, the sense of belonging,” his father says.
And as the son, grandson and nephew of veterans, Jamie had generations of family to turn to for knowledge, advice — and inspiration.
He was just five days shy of his 7th birthday when terrorists attacked America, killing nearly 3,000 people. Though the horrifying images of the crumbling World Trade Center played in an endless loop on TV, he wasn’t old enough to understand the nation was heading into war: On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, setting out to topple the Taliban, crush al Qaida and find bin Laden.
A decade later, Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan during a dramatic nighttime raid by a team of Navy Seals. But the battles, the bombings and the debate over troop size continued as the freckle-faced kid who pretended to be a soldier grew up to be one.
When Johnston stepped foot onto Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan last spring he was a sturdy 24-year-old, a six-year Army veteran and an ordnance specialist who’d completed rigorous explosive training.
His career path had never been in doubt. He told everyone he met after moving to New York — Johnston’ father, then a paramedic, had relocated there — that he planned to enlist after high school. “He kept preaching the military 24-7,” says Roger Lauper, chief of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, where Johnston recruited his father to join him as a volunteer firefighter.
Johnston’s parents had split when he was very young and his mother says when her son mentioned enlisting, she urged him to consider all military options. Above all, she says she cautioned him not to rush into anything.
“I wanted him to live a little bit, to take some time off,” she says. “To be honest, he told me he felt he wasn’t going to make it to old age and he wanted to experience things as fast as possible. I said, ‘Wait, you might feel that way, but your destiny’s not set in stone.’ … He did everything in fast forward.”
On Saturday, hundreds of people, some wearing aloha shirts and plastic lei in Johnston’s honor, lined a pathway next to bricks etched with the names of local boys who’d gone to war, some never to return. The gathering was a combination barbeque and day of remembrance.
On one wall, a slide show of photos captured the many sides of James Johnston:
The animal lover, posing with a parrot perched atop his head, checking out a zebra from his car window at the Topsey Exotic Ranch & Drive Thru Safari, near has Texas home. The soldier, in fatigues, laughing with Army buddies. And maybe the most important role, Krista’s partner, smiling together on Mount Rainier, looking into each other’s eyes on their wedding day in 2014, she in strapless white, he in shades and a baseball cap, after they married at the Destin, Florida, courthouse.
The two met in high school. Their first date amounted to little more than Krista skipping school to hang out with Johnston at his home after he’d been banged up during football practice.
She liked his easy smile, his jokes, his courtly Southern manner; he first called her Miss Krista and opened doors for her. Soon, they were inseparable, two outdoorsy types, zipping around the woods, splashing in the mud in a four-wheeler, hunting deer. Krista’s family, the VanDerzees, had lived in the same place for generations. Jamie, the newcomer, was Texas proud, bragging that the heat, the scenery, the trees — everything was better back home
Johnston was brutally honest without being mean, the kind of guy who’d tell a friend if he thought she was wearing something that didn’t look good on her.
“He could not lie, even if it got him in trouble,” says Fred VanDerzee, his father-in-law.
He always spoke his mind. “Whenever you asked his opinion, he was going to give it you straight, no shortcuts, no ‘this is to make you feel better,’” Krista says.
Paula Kovach, Johnston’s aunt, describes Krista as his perfect partner, “grace under fire. She would handle his bluntness and give it right back.”
But Jamie was a romantic, too. In 2014, while training in Florida, Krista visited, and he immediately insisted they stroll down the beach. Friends walking ahead picked up a bottle, urging a reluctant Krista to open it. Grudgingly, she did. Inside was a message: “Will you take my last name?’”
She turned around to find Jamie on one knee. “I think it’s probably the sweetest thing he’s ever done,” she recalls.
They married two months later and planned for a delayed wedding bash, in Texas, naturally, ideally in an open field with a big tree, maybe on their five-year anniversary. But Afghanistan intervened.
Johnston had deployed just a month after returning from almost a year-long tour in Korea — he’d initiated his aloha shirt tradition there to lighten the mood.
Despite his easygoing ways, he had a stubborn streak, too. A soldier friend recalled he once spent a half hour lying on the floor protesting an order he didn’t like. And at his memorial at Fort Hood, a former platoon leader said when Johnston was ordered to do some tasks, he’d sometimes say: “‘Sir. That’s dumb … Fine I’ll do it, but I’m going to complain the whole time.’”
Johnston saw his deployment as a chance to serve with his buddies, improve his career opportunities and use his skills, Krista says. “He felt he hadn’t done enough.”
Krista had learned she was pregnant the day before her husband was deployed. It was an especially emotional moment, she says, because they’d been trying to start a family for two years and she’d miscarried recently. But how to deliver the news? Jamie loved gifts, so she printed a message on a piece of paper, framed it, put it in a box and handed it to him that night.
Jamie opened the box, stared at the message, then turned around with tears rolling down his face. “It was the first time I’d see him cry in the seven years we’d been together,” she recalls. She cried, too. The next morning, he headed to war.
Nine weeks later, Krista told Jamie they’d be having a girl.
He started pondering post-military life. He talked with his mother about returning to Galveston, Texas, to join her charter fishing operation, even though he wasn’t crazy about fishing. He called his father-in-law to discuss possible business ventures.
On June 25th, Krista and Jamie did what they’d done since he arrived in Afghanistan. He messaged her that he’d be going on an operation. “Be safe. I love you,” she’d responded, and she awaited word that he had returned safely.
This time, there was silence.
Johnston and Master Sgt. Micheal Riley, a Green Beret, were killed in combat; the military said they died from injuries sustained in small arms fire, but did not elaborate.
Two-and-a-half months later, on the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Johnston’s unit returned from Afghanistan.
Krista and Richard Johnston were among those waiting at Fort Hood. Six months earlier, she’d said goodbye to her husband at that same spot.
Amid the reunions, there was a surprise for Krista — a tribute to her husband, bold and colorful, befitting his personality.
As James Johnston’s buddies stepped off the bus, each man wore an aloha shirt.
After Jamie’s death, Krista decided to name their daughter after him. Friends and family will assemble a book of stories and photos that will help her learn about the man she’ll never meet. Krista will have plenty to say, too.
“She’ll know he was my best friend,” she says, and “the love of my life.”
Krista says she’ll also be guided by her husband ‘s words after a friend, also an explosive specialist, was killed last year in Afghanistan. He vowed then to focus on his buddy’s life, not his death.
Jamie, she says, “would want us to remember that he lived a happy, fun-loving life.”
Krista will raise Jamie Avery Grace Johnston in Texas and introduce her to their menagerie that includes two dogs and three mini pigs.
She hopes their baby girl will resemble her father. “I would love to see his dark hair, freckles and dark brown eyes,” she says. She’s sure Jamie will inherit his personality, too.
“I know that she’s going to be sarcastic and I know she’s going to stand up for herself,” she says, “and she’s going to be just as strong as her father.”