POCATELLO, Idaho – For one family in Inkom, service to country is an honored tradition spanning 60 years, three generations and four wars.
Three generations have served with the acclaimed U.S. Army Rangers.
Steve Johnston served with the Rangers 3rd Brigade, 75th Regiment, 9th Infantry in Vietnam from 1969-1970. His father, Matthew Johnston, was one of Darby’s Rangers in World War II and Steve’s 20-year-old son, Jesse Johnston, recently returned from service in Iraq and is training with the elite group.
“My dad started in North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Italy and France and walked into Berlin in 1945,” Steve Johnston said. “He fought at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge.”
Fewer than half of servicemen who apply to be part of the Rangers are accepted, according to a recent promotional publication.
A younger brother also served in the Korean conflict and another was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after returning from Vietnam.
His mother, Mary Johnston, joined the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, but contracted rheumatic fever and was not able to serve, Johnston said.
“Serving my country was the most important part of my military service. I take that pretty seriously,” he said. “I really didn’t talk to my kids about the military … sometimes they asked questions. I tried to teach them that freedom isn’t free.”
A wall in Steve Johnston’s den is lined with photographs of the men he served with and a case displays numerous medals awarded during his service in Vietnam. Among them are a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the South Vietnamese Cross of Valor awarded by the South Vietnamese government.
Johnston said he enlisted during the Vietnam War because it was the right thing to do. His children share that sense of duty and patriotism regarding service in Iraq.
At one time, two of Johnston’s sons, a daughter-in-law and two nephews he raised were all in active military duty.
His son and daughter-in-law are now in the Naval Reserve, one nephew is stationed in Japan with the Navy and the other, Steve Valdez, just returned from Iraq.
“Steve was a gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He was one of the first people to roll into Baghdad,” he said.
Johnston claimed his son and nephew encountered members of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq.
“My son told me the men he served with believed in what they were doing,” he said. “He told me he would rather go back to Iraq and give his life than see American civilians killed. We’ll take the fight to their back yard so we don’t have to fight them in ours.”
Johnston advised his son and nephew that their service in Iraq would impact them for the rest of their lives.
“I told them they might see things that they’ll have to deal with the rest of their lives,” he said. “I told them to never let their guard down and to come home alive.”
Jesse Johnston and Valdez may be redeployed to Iraq, he said.
Johnston said it is too early to compare Iraq to Vietnam.
“This is a new generation. We need to deal with this – Vietnam is over,” he said. “9/11 served to unite the country. At first, people supported the troops, but the longer it lasts, support wavers. It needs to be resolved.”
Johnston was wounded three times in Vietnam and he admits that he suffered long-term effects after returning from the war, but has no regrets, he said. The bonds forged with fellow soldiers in that war remain intact.
“I had some problems, nightmares, problems sleeping, but I straightened out,” he said. “It’s been 35 years since Vietnam and those guys are still like brothers to me. Even if we don’t see each other, the bond is still there.”
Johnston remembers what it was like when his family members were still in Iraq.
“Every morning I turned on the television and I’d hear about Americans being killed in Iraq and I wondered if they were mine,” he said. “I thank God my son and nephews came out of the war alive.”
Johnston said the embedded media have done a good job reporting the war.
“Those reporters are risking their lives just like everyone else,” he said. “A reporter for Time magazine was killed while he was with my nephew’s company.”
However, Johnston said he would like to see the media focus on military achievement in Iraq.
“My son and nephew have seen the tyranny of Saddam Hussein first-hand,” he said. “We’ve reopened schools and hospitals and they said the Iraqi people have thanked them for being there.”
Johnston believes you can support the troops without supporting the war.
“Soldiers aren’t politicians – they’re doing what they were trained to do,” he said.
Johnston advised parents and family members of military personnel currently deployed in Iraq to pray for their loved ones and be proud of their military service.
“I’m so proud of my kids, they’re my life. I don’t think they know how proud I am,” he said.