Army Suicide Prevention Program manager keeps the weight off six years later
Shirley Johnson, talks with a chaplain from V Corps April 27, 2021, shortly after teaching a class to several Soldiers about suicide prevention. Johnson stays at around 177 pounds today, compared with the 270 pounds he used to struggle with six years ago. (Photo Credit: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. — Many who know Shirley Johnson see him as a trim man full of vigor and sound advice. Those who knew him prior to 2015 likely don’t recognize him.

That’s because for the past six years, the Fort Knox Army Substance Abuse Program specialist has committed himself to shedding 100+ pounds and keeping it off.

“I started out extremely obese. That was the word that was given to me,” said Johnson. “I went from extremely obese, to obese, to overweight, to fit. I was basically the same person I am today, just bigger.”

One of two ASAP specialists at the installation offices, Johnson spends much of his day encouraging others. His job encompasses three jobs: Risk Reduction Program coordinator; Suicide Prevention Program manager; and when needed, the Prevention coordinator — most of which involves him sitting behind a computer screen due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Johnson said he is well aware of how inactivity can lead to weight gain.

“I got lazy after I retired,” said Johnson. “I forgot that there’s something more to you than just being a Soldier; you’re also an athlete.”

Army Suicide Prevention Program manager keeps the weight off six years later
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – During a vacation prior to shedding about 100 pounds in 2017, Shirley Johnson and his wife Marcy enjoy time on the beach. He said he was probably around 240 at the time of this photo. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Johnson) VIEW ORIGINAL
Army Suicide Prevention Program manager keeps the weight off six years later
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Johnson) VIEW ORIGINAL

In the role of Suicide Prevention manager, Johnson often talks to Soldiers about the five dimensions of strength, one of which is physical health. He said that in 2015, hovering at around 270 pounds, he was ignorant to what the physical dimension actually entailed.

“I thought it was just eat, sleep and exercise,” said Johnson. “That’s the foundation, but it’s a whole lot more than that.”

The struggle of his obesity coupled with his ignorance of physical health converged at a family reunion in West Virginia six years ago.

“My grandkids wanted me to take them to the big park, not the little park where we were camping,” said Johnson. “It was about a mile away.”

The walk turned into more than just a jaunt down the road for him.

“It was every bit of a mile,” said Johnson. “When I got to that park, I wasn’t healthy enough to play with my grandkids.

“I could see the road that I was actually on.”

After returning to work, Johnson said his first step in getting back in shape and shedding the pounds had to involve education.


Shirley’s Systematic Approach to Physical Health

Often looking for ways to present information in a clear, organized manner, Johnson said he came up with his own way to regain control of his physical health while losing the weight.

“My approach to physical health is basically six things: education; training; time; effort; discipline; and, mindfulness,” said Johnson. “I just added mindfulness in there recently because I’ve had a mindful practice for the last couple of years now.”

The bulk of his education came from the Army Wellness Center, where he received an honest assessment of where he was and what it would take to get where he wanted to be.

Army Suicide Prevention Program manager keeps the weight off six years later
Shirley and his wife Marcy stand for a more recent photo, after he shed the 100 pounds he had set as his weight goal. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Johnson) VIEW ORIGINAL

“When I went over there, they educated me on macros and micros. I was just thinking food,” said Johnson. “It’s a whole lot different than just food.”

He discovered that one of the most important elements to physical strength is sleep.

“I learned to make sure I scheduled sleep, just like you schedule your wakeup,” said Johnson.

Exercise was another element.

“About that same timeframe, I had a total hip replacement,” said Johnson. “I had to start doing exercise for physical therapy, so I started walking. Then I walked a little further, and a little further. Then I jogged, and then I started running.

“I fell in love with running.”

Johnson admitted he didn’t enjoy that same love for running while in the service.

“In the Army I ran because they told me to,” said Johnson.

Once Johnson received the information he needed to get in shape from the Army Wellness Center, he set about to developing his training methods.

“You gotta train how you eat, train how you sleep, and train how you exercise,” said Johnson. “There’s where I had to explore a lot of things.”



He created another plan that he calls a G-WOP — it stands for “Goal,” “Why” the goal, “Obstacles” to it, and the “Plan” to achieve it.

“My first goal was just, ‘walk a mile, play with my grandkids,’” said Johnson. “That changes over time.”

His goals today involve running half marathons, one of which he completed April 24, with a bigger goal on the horizon.

Army Suicide Prevention Program manager keeps the weight off six years later
Shirley and church friends Ryne Able (left) and Michael Kast stand on a platform after finishing a half-marathon together April 24, 2021. Running has become one of Shirley’s passions. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Johnson) VIEW ORIGINAL

“I’m going to do a full marathon in October,” said Johnson. When I start saying this stuff, people get scared, but they have to remember that I’ve been doing this for like six years now. I didn’t start out doing this.”

The third approach is time.

“Here’s where the excuse it for a lot of people,” said Johnson. “They don’t have time.”

Johnson said he understands how challenging it can be when people are trying to work on all five strength dimensions. However, time is still something that must be made.

“This separates what I call the wishers from the wanters,” said Johnson. “People who want something will find the time. People who wish will just wish the time away.”

The fourth approach: effort.

Johnson confessed that he is likely older than many people think.

“In about four or five more years, I won’t look at times on my runs. I’ll just look to make sure I can do the distance,” said Johnson. “Right now, I’m still doing okay with time.”

He pointed to a sheet on the desk in front of him, a printout of his half-marathon run time depicted on it — one hour and 47 minutes at an 8:15-minute/mile pace. Johnson, soon to be turning 56, said people need to understand the difference between chronological age and biological age.

“Chronological age is how old you are day by day, second by second,” said Johnson. “Biological age is how old you feel. I may not make it past 77 statistically, but I want to have a life worth living.”

Mindfulness involves another dimension of strength, according to Johnson: being psychologically and emotionally fit.

“Mindfulness normally would go under the emotional category, but now I understand that mindfulness can repair damage done by stress, reshaping the brain in ways that make us better able to regulate emotions,” said Johnson. “It’s like a workout for my brain.”

Johnson said the last approach is often the hardest: discipline. This is what has helped him keep the weight off for six years.

“For most people, when they fall short it’s because they rely on motivation, but you gotta have discipline,” said Johnson. “I didn’t feel like getting up at 4 o’clock this morning and working out like I did; I wasn’t motivated to do it. I have just come off a half-marathon and I’m still a little bit tired and sore.

“But I’m disciplined to do it.”

Johnson said it took about two years to get down to his optimum weight. These days, his weight comes with an added bonus: a body mass index of 24. He enjoys encouraging Soldiers with stories about his successes. He also enjoys playing with the grandkids, even after a one-mile walk.


Editor’s Note: To start your journey to a healthier life, visit the Army Wellness Center at 545 Eisenhower Ave., or call 502-626-0408.