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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Soldiers return from Iraq

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Indiana National Guard's 38th Infantry Division, 38th Main Support Battalion 1st Sgt. Neil Stough welcomed home Sgt. Shawn Johnson at the Brazil Armory Tuesday morning after being deployed to Iraq for a year. Johnson was one of 19 area guardsmen to return home at the Indianapolis Airport over the weekend. Another 30 unit guardsmen returned home at other airports around the country.
Indiana National Guard Sgt. Shawn Johnson, Fountanet, Ind., one of the soldiers who returned home at the Indianapolis Airport Sunday evening, learned to appreciate many things while stationed in Iraq for the past year.

"You take small things, like a Coke machine, for granted," Johnson said laughing, and then he got serious. "You really don't realize all that you've got in this life, like family, until they are gone."

Waiting at home was his fiancÚ, Shannon Felker, and his brother Dennis, who is stationed at Camp Atterbury, and sister-in-law, Stephanie Johnson.

"I kept in good contact with my family," he said. "The best way was by web cam, but at times it was the worst. You could see their expressions and that was comforting. But afterwards, you'd realize just how much you missed them."

That is when the camaraderie of being in a close-knit unit is vital to a soldier's morale, according to Johnson.

"I couldn't have asked to be with a better group of guys then the ones I was with. My squad was awesome," Johnson said. "When it was time to work, we stayed focused on the job. But, when there was some downtime, it wasn't hard to find a way to laugh with these guys. It helped ease the stress."

Based at Al-Taji, Johnson's squad was part of a unit responsible for moving large pieces and amounts of necessary equipment to troops stationed throughout Iraq using a heavy equipment transport (HETs) vehicle.

"During the surge it got hectic, but it never really slowed down," Johnson said about the continuous missions. "There were times when we would come back, do our laundry, turn around and go back out."

Between Oct. 8, 2006, to when the unit left on Sept. 25, 2007, the unit logged more than a half a million miles.

Johnson, who had a 10-day crash course to learn how to operate the new issue of a HETs vehicle with 48 wheels before hitting the roads in Iraq, experienced trouble with an improvised explosive device planted alongside a road once. Although he didn't say if the crudely made device hurt anyone, he said the soldiers did not take them lightly.

"During every mission you really had to be focused, yet flexible so you could react in case of trouble," he said. "You learn to rely upon your training and the teamwork of your squad. Our main focus was to get everyone home safely to their families while doing the job right."

Due to the type and amount of work the unit performed and the security of the base, there wasn't much time for the soldiers to interact with the local Iraqi people.

"The locals always gave us a warm welcome whenever we came around. I don't think it gets out much over here in the news media, but they were truly happy to have us there," Johnson said, adding that he believes the relationship with between the soldiers and the children is the future for Iraq.

"The children were always smiling and waving at us. Soldiers would throw glow sticks to them. They liked glow sticks," he said about children following soldiers around. "It's inevitable that, at some point, the children will take over the country in the future. I hope that when that happens they will remember the soldiers who came to help."

Helping others was the main reason Johnson signed up to be a part of the Indiana National Guard.

"I don't understand the politics of Iraq. I don't know what the politicians are trying to achieve," Johnson said. "But I believe we were a great assistance in Iraq. We were one small piece of that puzzle. We're in place. We got our job done. When all the pieces are put together, when it's all done, we'll see if it's right."

While the soldiers were helping people in Iraq, Johnson wants to thank all the people who provided care packages for the unit.

"You don't know how great it was to open one and find a piece, a memory of home in there," he said. "There would always be some little thing that you hadn't thought of, but when you saw it you realized you missed it."

One of Johnson's favorite things he found inside a care package was a homemade Colts pillow from a little girl.

"It came before they won the Super Bowl," he said. "I really want to thank everyone that sent them. They just kept coming and coming, it was non-stop."

With 90 days leave, Johnson is planning for the future.

"Being in Iraq was a real life changing experience for me," Johnson said. "I'm more focused on the future than ever before."

He plans to return to a carpenter apprenticeship program he was accepted into three days before he was deployed.

"They had no problem with my leaving. They told me to just come back when I got home," Johnson said, adding that he is also making some special plans later this month. "I'm taking my fiancÚ to Hawaii on Oct. 22 and get married. I figure if she could put up with this deployment, she deserves a vacation."

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