My guest this week has been in situations that I can only imagine — four deployments with the U.S. Army will put you in harm’s way on a regular basis. Fred Johnson is a retired Army colonel who now describes himself as a “professional volunteer,” as he’s trying to find his path after nearly 30 years in the military. He’s written a book about his experience, called Five Wars: A Soldier’s Journey to Peace. Johnson says the fifth war was after he came home and tried to reintegrate into civilian life.
I first met Fred when he came to tell a story at The Moth StorySLAM, which I produce here in Louisville. I was struck by his openness and clarity, and his very public search for healing. He told stories about cultural differences in Afghanistan, about the mistake he feels he made in Iraq, and about the moment when he knew he needed help.
On the burden that military families bear:
“Everybody says ‘thank you for your service’ to the soldier. Who they should be thanking is the families. My wife knew what she was getting into when she married me — well, maybe not everything — but my daughter didn’t. She was born into this world, had no idea her dad was an airborne ranger, infantryman, went to war a lot. It’s the families that really should be thanked, because they’re the ones that sacrifice. We’re just doing our jobs.”
On what the Army meant to him:
“I was in the Army for nearly 30 years, and I cannot in any way separate being a soldier from my core being. Because what the Army did, more than anything, it gave me a sense of purpose. People say, ‘Why do you join the Army, why do people stay in the Army?’ and there’s a couple of things. Camaraderie, obviously, because you’ve always got your closest buddies, guys and gals that are next to you and sharing hardship. But what the Army represents is doing something bigger than oneself.”
On the first time he came to The Moth to tell a story:
“I was just afraid that nobody would care about what I was saying. And I’ll be honest — I was afraid that I’d go up there as a soldier and people would not like me because they misunderstood me. It’s awful, it’s stupid, it’s the most irrational thing, but I was just coming out of the military, I did not know anything about the civilian world, and my fear was that they were going to think I was this Neanderthal.”