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Young vet finds healing
BARSTOW • Michael Johnson was the kind of son any father would be proud of.
In high school, he was strong, competitive and excelled in fast-paced sports such as basketball, track and water polo.
With his natural gusto and patriotism, people saw Johnson as a role model and leader. He enlisted in the Army in 1989 at age 19.
“It is important to love your country and, if necessary, to put your life on the line,” he said.
And he did.
During four years in the Army, he did a seven-month tour in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Michael was part of the elite front-line reconnaissance unit, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in what the Military Channel described as “the last great tank battle of the 20th century,” The Battle of 73 Easting.
The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment was responsible for clearing a path through Saddam’s Republican Guard for VII Corps advance into Kuwait. American recon, armored, air and artillery forces clashed with hundreds of Iraqi tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery batteries. The Americans were heavily outnumbered and outgunned as the armored melee with the Iraqis commenced.
Johnson experienced fierce, continuous fighting and exposure to neurotoxic chemicals, including Sarin and VX gas. Inside his state-of-the-art German-built M93 Recon Fox, Johnson’s unit formed one of three prongs on the front-line of the 2nd Armored, tracking and reporting chemical exposure levels and identifying fortified enemy positions.
“The Iraqi tank and artillery shells exploded against the sides of the better-armored Bradley fighting vehicles, and Abrams tanks during the assault usually with little damage,” he said. “Even as the battle began to turn, the Iraqi Republican Guard fought to the death. The battle was the first ground defeat of the Republican Guard. Subsequent combat operations resulted in the defeat of Saddam’s army and the liberation of Kuwait.
Johnson was honorably discharged from the Army at the age of 24. He returned to the workforce without major adjustment problems, but had never asked nor was ever told about the possible after effects of war. He said he just wanted to get on with his life and not look back at the violence.
However, the past was about to catch up to him in ways he could not have imagined. Gradually and then increasingly, he started to experience joint and muscle pain that, on some days, was so severe he could barely get out of bed. As an athlete, he had always had a sense of physical well-being.
Now he felt increasingly hopeless and confused about his physical deterioration. The pain was accompanied by severe fatigue, restless nights, nightmares and frequent flashbacks. While he kept working, he continued to decline. He started drinking as a way to self-medicate. He suffered two marriage failures, and due to the poor economy, the company he worked for had a 90 percent reduction in its workforce and Johnson lost his job. It was not long before he was homeless.
Seeking help, he turned to the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center and was in the process of filing a claim for disability benefits, but misfortune struck yet again as his car was stolen along with all of his possessions and the supporting documentation he needed.
“At that point I had nothing; all I could do was cry,” he said.
Now age 43, Johnson was running out of options, but he saw one last ray of hope. Having previously worked in Victorville, he knew that there was a Veterans Home in Barstow, so he reached out for help and called the Home. His call was transferred to Bill Rigole, Chief of Social Work Service. Rigole took an immediate interest in Johnson and coordinated a rapid admission. Now Johnson had a place to call home.
Soon he started attending regularly scheduled counseling sessions with Rigole to help treat his depression. Together, while they worked through Johnson’s problems and the effects of the war, Rigole pointed him toward the future and what he might do with the rest of his life. With the strong support and understanding of other vets, Johnson learned to manage.
He still has chronic fatigue, almost constant muscle and joint pain and sinus problems.
“Some days I physically feel like I have been run over by a truck. But I am willing to work through the pain to better my life,” he said.
Two Barstow employees, Anthony Saldana, food manager and Julie Pellman, RD, Assistant Director of Dietetics, helped to improve his diet. He gained some of the weight he had lost and started to feel better.
Thanks, in part, to his improved sense of health and well-being, he was able to take on a new challenge. He is taking a full load of classes at the neighboring Barstow Community College, working to become a recreation therapist. He said he wants to help people and, in particular, veterans.
Johnson is getting all A’s and B’s in his classes. In addition, he is now the Vice President of the Barstow Community College Veterans Center, a safe and non-judgmental environment where veterans come together, share experiences, and offer each other support and guidance to transition back into civilian life.
“One of the things the Army taught me in Recon was no matter what happens, you get up, you adapt and you overcome,” Johnson said. “Still, no matter how tough you think you are transition is hard. I don’t know what would have happened to me without the Veterans Home and the people who have helped me. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty; they have changed my life. What I want to do now is something Bill Rigole kept telling me — ‘Pay it forward.’”
Rigole reflected on the services CalVet Homes provide.
“The CalVet Homes provide excellent rehabilitation and re-integration opportunities for younger, homeless veterans and those having readjustment problems complicated by disabilities incurred during time of war,” he said. “The Homes care for disabled and ill veterans, but aging is only one of the challenges our veterans share. War trauma requires a full spectrum of care and service to those who bore the battles. That is why we are there.
Lynn Scott is Assistant Deputy Secretary, California Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Homes Division.