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A Fallen Navy Medic Is Honored

September 18, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — On the eve of war in Iraq, Navy medic Michael Vann Johnson Jr. wrote his mother not to grieve if he was killed in combat.

"Mom, I love you and don't be afraid if I don't return, realize that I am in heaven with God," Johnson wrote his mother, Jana Norfleet, in Little Rock, Ark.

Weeks later, in the predawn hours of March 25, Johnson was killed instantly as a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the Humvee carrying him and other members of his Marine Corps weapons team.

The Humvee was racing along war-torn Route 1 to help Marines pinned down by an ambush. As a medical corpsman, Johnson's role was to help wounded Marines, civilians and Iraqi soldiers.

On Wednesday, in a dedication ceremony that brought Marines, sailors, and his friends and family members to tears, the health clinic at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was renamed in Johnson's honor.

Johnson, 25, the only Navy corpsman killed in combat in Iraq, was remembered as a dedicated hospital corpsman who sang gospel hymns, dreamed of being an actor or singer, and quickly volunteered to be in a unit bound to be at the "tip of the spear" as U.S. forces pushed toward Baghdad.

" 'Doc' Johnson was a natural leader," Marine Major Robert Piddock said. "He had a confidence, a swagger, that the Marines responded to."

Johnson's widow, Cherice, said her husband believed deeply in his Christian faith.

"He helped me to believe too," she said amid tears. "His faith kept him strong and now it keeps me strong."

Brig. Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., the recruit depot's commanding officer, said Johnson displayed "every bit of the courage, honor and commitment you can expect a fighting man to have."

Rear Adm. James A. Johnson, commander of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, said Johnson died upholding the highest values of the Navy's medical service. "It is the corpsman's charge to put himself where the danger is," the admiral said.

More than 1,900 enlisted members of the Navy's medical ranks have died in combat, beginning with the Civil War. The walls of the clinic that is now called Johnson Hall are lined with pictures of medics who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery and self-sacrifice.

"It's amazing how close the Marines get to the corpsmen," Piddock said. "In combat, the corpsmen are like your mother. They're the ones who will take care of you when you get hurt."

"Corpsmen are everything," 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh said. " 'Doc' Johnson was truly exceptional. I never worried when he was around."

Corpsman Paul Elder, who was within 100 yards of Johnson when the Humvee was attacked, said he decided after Johnson's death that he would name his first child after him. Michael Angel Elder was born June 1.

"My son is a special kid," Elder said. "I wanted to name him after a special person and keep his spirit alive."

Cherice Johnson, 25, said she was not surprised when her husband volunteered to be part of a group that would be in the forefront of the U.S. offensive. "He felt it was his duty," she said.

Wearing a small pin with a picture of her husband's favorite comic book hero, she said, "Mike was a big Superman fan."

One of eight children, Johnson loved playing basketball, drawing and acting. He attended the University of Central Arkansas before joining the Navy in 1997. He served at Twentynine Palms and the recruit depot before being sent to Iraq as part of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and promoted to hospital corpsman second class.

The clinic, at Midway and Hue City avenues, was known simply as Building 596 before being named for Johnson.

A second medic, David. J. Moreno, was killed in Iraq in July from what the military called a "non-hostile" gunshot wound.

The morning Johnson was killed, he was in a Humvee with Marines armed with a variety of weapons. Marine officials noted that the fact the grenade directly struck Johnson probably saved the Marines' lives. One was injured but recovered.

"Even in death he was protecting his Marines," Navy chaplain Capt. Timothy Morita said. "We stand humbled by the legacy of this man."

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