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Army Sgt. Travon Johnson, 29, Ontario; among 4 dead in explosion in Afghanistan

August 19, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

He was a doting husband, a community volunteer and a high school wrestling champ, with the potential to become a pro. But Travon Johnson's passion for public service led him to fight in the arena of war, not in the ring.

The 29-year-old Army sergeant was among four soldiers killed July 23 when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in Afghanistan's Sarobi district, east of Kabul. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy.

Johnson was serving as squad leader on his third deployment with a brigade, according to the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Known to friends as T.J., the tall and strapping Johnson, who charmed people with his captivating smile, was born in Palmdale and grew up in Ontario. He was born to Billie Shotlow of Ontario and Richard D. Johnson, who lives in Decatur, Ga.

Michael Shotlow was the proud and protective stepfather who raised Johnson as his own from the age of 5. "A gentle giant" is how he described his stepson, who was about 6 feet 4.

"He was a cheerful kid, honest and trustworthy. A kid who never gave us any trouble," Michael Shotlow said. "He would help people."

Teachers at Ontario High School, where Johnson was a student until 1996, have similar memories. "He was not a bully," said Laurie Zappia, head of the school's special education department. "He was a sweet young man who had the best interest of everybody at heart."

Johnson served as a student assistant to algebra teacher Joanne Jordan for four years.

"He was the kind of kid that you remember forever," she said. "He always had a real positive attitude. He knew how to get along in the adult world as well as the kid world."

After school, Johnson would volunteer at Westwind Community Center in Ontario.

"He really loved to be here," said Geneo Farrar, Westwind's acting supervisor. He recalled how for two years Johnson would regularly arrive at the center at 3 p.m., after a day at school, and leave around 7 p.m.

"He would do everything we asked, interact with the kids, volunteer for special events, like center parties at Thanksgiving," Farrar said. "He was always positive, always in a good mood and had a great smile."

He said Johnson's service and dedication were so welcomed that he was awarded Westwind's Valor Appreciation Award, which the center bestows on volunteers for outstanding work.

Jordan recalled that after high school Johnson worked with the California Conservation Corps and returned to Ontario High on a recruiting drive for the agency.

"His ambition was to try and prove himself," his stepfather said. At one point, Johnson had wanted to join the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, but the agency wasn't hiring at the time. Johnson subsequently enlisted in the Army.

"He wanted to make a profession of it," said Michael Shotlow, who supported his stepson's decision to become a soldier. Johnson was about 20 and "there wasn't a war going on then," he said.

In local press interviews, friends described Johnson as a patriot who believed in America and in President Bush.

Members of Johnson's platoon underscored his loyalty and commitment to his unit, and said he turned down several promotions in order to stick with his troops. His actions continued a pattern that his teachers noticed in high school.

"He was a kid who would take someone under his wing," recalled Zappia, the special education teacher.

His friends also portrayed him as a loving husband. His wife, Sara, is in Italy.

Johnson was buried with full military honors Aug. 4 at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Los Angeles. The scores of mourners included relatives, city officials, former school friends and teachers and members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of motorcycle enthusiasts who attend funerals to honor fallen U.S. military personnel.

"He was honored in a very special way . . . in style," his mother said.

In addition to his wife, birth parents and stepfather, Johnson is survived by a sister, Kathy Vines; a brother, Jeremy Ates; his paternal grandmother, Annie Johnson-Sinkfield; and two children from previous relationships.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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