By Maria Rice McClure Fort Campbell CourierOctober 23, 2015
Touched by the death of a close Family friend created a lifelong mission for Theresa Johnson to raise awareness on behalf of the Fisher House Foundation.
"[Private 1st Class] Timothy Vimoto was a kind and sweet young man from our neighborhood," Johnson said. "He went to school with my children and was … 'their big brother.' He would come to the house and hang out in our 'man cave' with the boys, or they would be outside throwing around the football or playing a pick-up game."
The Vimoto Family was the first to welcome the Johnsons to the Fort Campbell community by inviting them to Thanksgiving shortly upon their arrival in the area.
Fisher House Foundation
Johnson first learned about the important works of the Fisher House while her husband was deployed with 801st Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that time Johnson passed by the construction site of the Fort Campbell Fisher House almost daily. She said she never gave it much thought until a conversation she had with a friend in February 2006. Her friend's deployed husband was injured and while he was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center the Family stayed at a Fisher House.
"[Her] captivating words changed [the] course of direction in my life," Johnson said. "We talked a little more and I got on the Internet and did my research. It was then that I instantly knew it could be me. My husband still had six months or so left in his deployment and they were not in a great place."
The Walter Reed Fisher House manager visited the following month, and Johnson said that she made it a point to meet her. Since that meeting Johnson and her three sons have become "lifetime volunteers."
The Fisher House Foundation funds construction of Fisher House homes on installations or near Veterans Hospitals and then donates those homes to that particular installation's branch of service or the VA, Johnson said. These homes provide Families of service members who are going through a medical crisis with a place to stay at no cost to the Families. There also is a Fisher House home at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where Families of fallen service members can stay during the dignified transfer of their loved ones remains. Additionally, Fisher House Foundation provides scholarships and travel assistance for Families of sick or injured service members through a program known as Hero Miles. For more information about the Fisher House Foundation, visit www.fisherhouse.org.
Soon after Johnson's husband returned from deployment, the Army called and the Family moved to Hawaii.
"Tim had just graduated and had joined the military," she said. "His Family was headed to the 173rd [Airborne Brigade Combat Team] in Italy."
Just three short months later, Johnson's youngest son, Leon, saw a posting on MySpace that Pfc. Timothy Vimoto had been killed in action.
"That day even though [he] was not my son, it will forever remain as a distinct memory," she said. Questions were racing through her mind. What happened? How was his mom?" How was his dad? How will I tell my older two when I pick them up from school?
"I cried the whole way there," Johnson said. "It suddenly became very real and even closer to home."
Run, Walk, Roll
While in Hawaii, Johnson volunteered at the Tripler Fisher House homes and eventually became a Fisher House manager. While hoping to raise awareness about the Fisher House Foundation, Johnson also wanted to find a way to honor fallen service members, especially Pfc. Timothy Vimoto.
With that in mind, she created the Fisher House Run, Walk and Roll, complete with a boot display to signify fallen service members.
"The boots served as a way for battle buddies and veterans to honor their fallen comrades who have 'walked a mile in their boots,'" Johnson said. "I wanted to bring back the names and faces of the over 6,400 [service members] -- at the time I had started it."
The inaugural event took place just three weeks before Sept. 11, 2012.
"The whole community pitched in to help collect the boots from all services and everyone helped me create the first set of tags [that] were done on copy paper and laminated," Johnson said. "It was a lot of work but they came 24/7 to get it done since I only had three months from concept to execution."
The event took place on Pearl Harbor's historic Ford Island and began with a small ceremony, a 21-gun salute and a bugler playing Taps. The event also included a run and walk that was lead by a motorcycle escort similar to Patriot Guard Riders, who attend the funerals of members of the military, firefighters and police at the invitation of Family. Some 6,400 boots, adorned with the names and photos of fallen Soldiers who were lost since 9/11, lined the run route. As runners passed by, the boots were moved to a field and were to be on display for the weekend.
"It ended up staying out three weeks through 9/11 because it was so important," Johnson said. "The dates just worked out and now I always hold it the weekend before 9/11 [in Hawaii] since that is the sole reason that particular group of fallen are even there."
Johnson credits the support of her Family as well as Candice Ualesi, who has been with her since the beginning, with the success of her vision. In addition to making sure pictures are paired with the correct names for boot tags and printing them, Ualesi keeps the database of fallen service members' names updated. While the Fisher House Run, Walk and Roll event continues in Hawaii, Johnson's original idea has grown into events at three other installations -- Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Campbell, that has incorporated a boot display into its Military Survivor Appreciation Week.
"We still know many of the Families [at Fort Campbell] and I know they have watched my events grow and expand and they wanted to be a part of it so it was very fitting," Johnson said. "This event is not a funded, or official event, it was started by me as a mom who knew the importance of Fisher House and a way to give back. I knew that as people understood it they would get involved, it was meant for the community to be a part of it."
'It was me'
For years, Johnson has shared her experience about how she learned about the Fisher House in speeches and would end with "as the spouse of a Soldier it could always be me."
Late in 2013 the Army called again, Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Johnson had orders to Fort Hood, Texas. Johnson stayed behind in Hawaii awaiting a job transfer. Meanwhile the Johnsons' middle son, Blake, had just returned to Germany after his first deployment.
"Three weeks later I was traveling on Mother's Day alone to Fort Hood and while in the airport I spoke with all my boys," she said. "Everyone was good and Blake was enjoying Europe and traveling with his friends who had also just returned from deployment. Life was good."
Two days later, Johnson received a strange text message from an out-of-country telephone number.
"I am looking for the Family of [Pfc.] Blake Johnson," the text read.
"My heart sank and I frantically texted back that I was his mother as tears streamed down my face," she said. "It was a long few minutes before I finally got a hold of a strange voice on the other line that informed me my son had been badly injured in a car accident on his way to work and was in surgery. I eventually talked to him and that became the new leg to my journey."
Johnson reached out to the Fisher House Foundation for assistance in getting to Germany.
"The Fisher House Foundation was able to assist me and my younger son, Leon, with flights at no cost to me because of generous donors who donated their airline miles," Johnson said. "I left the Fisher House as a manger in Hawaii as walked into the Bethesda Fisher House as a mom. I spent three months with him before his older brother, Taylor, spent another six months. Now my [speeches] have changed, when I talk about the Fisher House I no longer said 'it could be me," I say, 'it was me.'"