After two tours of duty in Iraq, Brian Johnson has a new focus: helping other veterans make the transition back into productive civilian lives.
Time is a thief, so some would say. But when first-year student Brian Johnson returned home from Iraq in 2008, time became his menace. “As a Calvary Scout, I went from working 48 to 72 hours nonstop to having all this downtime at home — and I was left with all the experiences playing over in my head. “In some instances, there are big chunks of missing time because so much happened at once, and I have a hard time processing it,” he says. “These lingering thoughts are one of my biggest struggles right now ...”
A veteran Army Scout who toured Iraq twice between 2005 and 2012, Johnson enrolled at Alvernia last winter with the goal to pursue a degree in communication and to assist fellow armed forces veterans with the same struggles he is facing.
“When I came back from my first deployment ..., which was the rougher of the two, one of the hardest things was when people would say, ‘I know how you feel,’ when really, they couldn’t,” he says.
“We all appreciate hearing ‘thank you for your service,’ but I don’t really like when people who’ve never served tell me they understand what I’m going through,” he says. “If you haven’t experienced war firsthand, in real time, you cannot possibly understand.”
So to give veterans the kind of assistance they really crave — support from those who’ve gone through the same thing — Johnson is setting out to create a nonprofit organization that provides help to vets, from vets.
A different kind of training
Compared to many typical college students, Johnson has lived an action-filled life, traveling the world, seeing different cultures up close and experiencing armed combat firsthand. He admits that, despite being caught up in the horrors of war, his seven years in the Army provided him many valuable lessons. “(My time in the military) taught me to be disciplined, to have good time management skills and to be prepared for anything, because there were a lot of situations I didn’t expect to encounter,” he says. “Overall, it made me a better person.”
In preparation to develop his non-profit program concept to help veterans, Johnson found an academic home at Alvernia. “Plus, the degree is something I just want to do for myself,” Johnson says, who, in addition to being a college student, is also a stay-at-home dad. “I was pretty much sold on Alvernia after the campus tour, and I chose communication because the curriculum really interested me.”
One thing Johnson didn’t expect was an injury between his first and second deployments to Iraq, for which he required surgery. “The doctors told me I needed to stay back and heal for three to four months after my unit left for Iraq, but somehow I was sent with everyone else.” As a result, the surgery didn’t heal correctly, and Johnson got to the point where he could barely walk.
“I still have some physical issues as a result of that injury, which will require additional surgeries, as well as some herniated discs in my lower back,” he says. “But all and all, I am up and moving around, and that is always a plus.”
Johnson says he developed the idea for the nonprofit while he was stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, in 2010. “Every year, they had a drive for the homeless and less fortunate veterans in the area. The Department of Veterans Affairs would be there to follow up on any medical care they needed and basically just to give them a helping hand,” he recalls. “I saw a lot of veterans there who weren’t doing very well.”
The experience made Johnson think, “I have a strong support system of family and friends, and even I have days that are so hard because of some of the things I’ve been involved in and had to do. So I can only imagine what it is like for people who don’t have that foundation.
“I want to help veterans who have served, to give them what they need to become productive again,” he says.
Johnson says a lot of what is missing is empathy for those who’ve served. “It is really easy to say, ‘this person is a substance abuser and doesn’t want to help himself.’ But it isn’t necessarily that the person doesn’t want to help himself, but that he doesn’t have the support necessary to do so.”
Johnson plans to change that.