Retired Col. Will Johnson’s Army career took him to combat zones, Hawaii, the Pentagon and Japan, ending at the Army Materiel Command at Redstone Arsenal.
In 30 years of service, he received numerous awards and decorations and, at the annual Veterans Dinner Nov. 10, he was honored again – being inducted into the Madison County Military Heritage Commission’s Hall of Heroes, along with his father-in-law, retired Col. Roy Adams, and two other former service members. All four men had received decorations for acts of valor during their service.
Johnson’s Army Commendation Medal with Valor recognized his leadership and courage while under enemy fire on a mission as he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“We were doing a raid into the village of Hibhib because it was a hotbed of insurgent activity and they were hunkered down there,” said Johnson, the commander of Task Force Badger. The coalition task force was made up of U.S., Iraqi Army and Republic of Georgia Soldiers. “A small portion of the team got pinned down inside the village. I led the group that went in to relieve those guys, reinforce them and get them out.
“Being recognized individually is truly an honor and I appreciate that but for me it’s really more about what we accomplished as a team.”
Being part of a team and having a sense of service led Johnson to join the military.
When Johnson, who grew up in Bristol, Tennessee, was looking into his college options, he became familiar with the military academies.
“West Point really appealed to me,” he said. “The tradition, the history, the service to our country – all the things that it represents – resonated with me.” He applied to the U.S. Military Academy, receiving a nomination from then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, and was accepted.
He was commissioned an Armor officer upon graduation in 1991. His first assignment was with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor, 3rd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was a tank platoon leader, tank company executive officer and Headquarters Company executive officer.
Johnson first met his future father-in-law at Fort Benning, which has been renamed Fort Moore.
“My tank platoon was cross attached to his infantry battalion, and we did a lot of training together, and I learned a lot in those days from him and from that experience – leading Soldiers, training, being ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.”
Johnson was next assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea where he was the squadron adjutant for the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry, then to the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, serving as the brigade plans officer and the commander of B Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor and B Troop, 9th Cavalry, the Brigade Reconnaissance Troop.
At Fort Knox, Kentucky, he led the Armor Officer Basic Course as commander of L Troop, 2nd Squadron, 16th Cavalry. He later was the deputy director for the Office of the Chief of Armor.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, “we were actually in the field, training a bunch of young lieutenants during the capstone exercise for their course,” Johnson said. “At that moment, I realized my calling. After all these years of training and deployments that led up to that moment, I was like, OK, I am where I was meant to be, this is what I was called to do and I’m going to continue to serve.”
Johnson returned to Fort Benning to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and deployed to Iraq with that unit, initially as the operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor.
Johnson would go on to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, where he was a planner, aide-de-camp to the commander and executive officer to the chief of staff.
Next, he commanded the 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry, deploying the squadron to Nangarhar, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. His unit was recognized with the Valorous Unit Award for combat actions against the Taliban.
Operation Black Panther kicked off on Christmas Eve 2010.
“Our mission was to gradually clear and secure that province of Afghanistan,” he said. “That was a very difficult deployment for a lot of reasons. A lot of tough warfighting, a lot of difficult combat and we lost a number of Soldiers as well.”
In that mission and some other operations after that, “we lost quite a few Soldiers during that deployment and that’s difficult because as battalion commander, it’s my responsibility to lead that battalion and bring everybody home,” Johnson said.
“It was a tough enemy we were fighting, and it was a difficult period but I’m really proud of what the battalion accomplished as a group.”
After one combat action which claimed the lives of several Soldiers in the platoon, “President Obama came and visited our unit,” he said. “That was pretty powerful.”
Johnson was selected to be the military assistant to Secretary of the Army John McHugh and, after completing a National Security Fellowship at Georgetown University, he was the executive officer in the Office of the Chief, Legislative Liaison in Washington, D.C.
The family moved to Camp Zama, outside Tokyo, when Johnson became the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Japan.
“It was an amazing assignment,” he said. “My wife (Meredith) refers to that as the Army’s gift to our family. After all the combat deployments, this was a completely different role for me. It was challenging but incredibly rewarding.”
After two years in Japan, Johnson was selected to be the deputy director for IMCOM-Pacific, the Installation Management Command’s regional command for the Indo-Pacific, and the Johnsons made their home at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, for two years.
Johnson’s final Army assignment was as chief of operations for AMC, overseeing global logistics, sustainment, supply chain and industrial base activities for the Army.
“The work we did to respond to a global crisis, doing our own small part to help us get through (the pandemic) as an Army and as a society was really tough but I’m proud of what we did in that effort,” he said.
Johnson, now an account executive with Palantir, described his military career as “a calling. It was an honor to serve. I did my best in every single assignment. I feel like I contributed to every team I was on. And I’m proud of that service.”
The Johnsons have two children: Braxton, who’s 19 and a sophomore at the University of Montevallo, and Sydney, a 16-year-old junior at Huntsville High.
The Johnsons did have some unique experiences during his service years, getting to live in Hawaii and Japan.
“Our family sacrificed a lot, with all those moves and new schools for the kids every couple of years, three at the most,” he said, adding that Meredith, a physical therapist, made sacrifices with her own career.
“She was always there to hold the family together, to support us,” Johnson said. “Candidly, I couldn’t have done a 30-year career the way I did without her. It was a family business.”