Local Marine shares experiences in Iraq

Photo By Kristen Luther
Patrick "Sean" Johnson, who recently returned from active duty with the Marine Corps in Iraq, enjoyed some time in a local park Friday afternoon with his wife, Angie, and their daughter, Maggie.

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  Separation from family and an encounter with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) are two experiences that stand out the most for a local United States Marine who recently returned from active duty in Iraq.
  Sgt. Patrick "Sean" Johnson is a member of Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Marine Corps Regiment, the Marine Corps Reserve unit which returned from Iraq just over a week ago.
  Johnson said the hardest part of being in the Middle East was separation from his family. "When I left I had a 12-month-old daughter and when I came back, she really didn't recognize me," he said. "The last few days I've just been getting to know her and my wife again."
  Being in Iraq was tougher on the Johnson mentally than it was physically, he said. "Physically, you can always prepare for, but mentally you can't. The Marine Corps probably does a better job than any other service to prepare you mentally, but there is nothing they can do to prepare you for not having your family there," he said. "To some extent while you are there, you know better, but while you're there, you think that you're going to come home and things are going to be exactly like they were when you left, but they are not. Time goes on. Our lives went on while we were over there and so did everybody else's here."
  While Johnson was on duty in Iraq, his wife, Angie, kept him updated with photographs of his daughter. But the photographs could not make up for the real thing. "When I came back, she was a lot bigger; she had learned to talk; she has learned to walk; she says anything she wants to say. She learned to swim while I was gone," he said. "It's a lot different. She's a new little girl, but I enjoy her just as much."
  Next to the day he had to leave his family behind in service to his country, there is one other day of his deployment that left a very lasting impression.
  On that day in March, Johnson saw two Marines from his battalion seriously injured.
  "I was actually in the vehicle with him (Sgt. Jeremey Williamson) and (LCpl Nathan) Morrow when we hit the IED. By the grace of God, I didn't get wounded myself," Johnson said. "That was quite possibly the worst day I have ever had. Two young men, one of them that I was really close with in Sgt. Williamson and the other, LCpl. Morrow, who is from my hometown and went to school with my sister."
   On that day in mid-March, the Marines in Johnson's battalion were conducting their first operation in the country - escorting a supply convoy. While en route, an IED exploded on the driver's side of the Humvee they were traveling in.
  "After we hit it, everyone was knocked out for a short while. Each one of us said that when we came to we thought we were the only person in the vehicle alive," Johnson said. "When I came to I started hollering 'Is anybody hit? Is anybody hit?' and Sgt. Williamson said 'Yeah, I'm hit.' I said 'How bad?' and when I turned around, I saw blood just pouring down from about the top of his ear all down his neck and his arm was injured as well."
  "Then I looked at Morrow. Morrow was the machine gunner and he was in what is called the gunnery strap, which is what the gunner sits in, and he was just slumped in that. The entire left side of his face was just torn and he was bleeding profusely from the left side of his head and neck and I didn't think he was going to make it," Johnson said. "But we had security to worry about, so we got everybody that was OK, we got them out and secured the site. We got another squad up there to help secure it."
  "We left Morrow in the vehicle because we knew that we were in an unsafe area and he was in an armored Humvee so he was better off there than anywhere else. Once we secured the area, we got him out and I was trying to talk to him and he wouldn't answer me. All I could see was his eyes moving," Johnson said. "It just destroyed me. I couldn't stay with him and there was nothing I could do for him except get him out and get him to a Corpsman. We got him out of the vehicle; I got him to a Corpsman and we called in for a med evac (medical evacuation) and the med evac came in for him and Sgt. Williamson."
  "It took us about four or five hours to get back to the base and I spent that four or five hours just wondering, thinking things like when I get home, I'm going to see Morrow's parents in town; I'm going to see his family and what am I going to tell them. When we got back, we were all covered in blood; we were all shaken. We didn't know about those two (Morrow and Williamson), what their status was. It was quite possibly, other than the day I left my family, it was quite possibly the worst day of my life. It was hard, but then I found out that hey, he's OK and he's going to Germany and he's going to be all right. I found out that (Williamson) was in Baghdad and he was going to be OK."
  On a more positive note, Johnson said that the community support for Lima Company was tremendous. "It was phenomenal the care packages and stuff that came in," he said, adding that the Marines in the company were not able to use all of the items sent to them because they received so much stuff. "We would go out into the local villages and give stuff away because the people there were just destitute.
  "People are the same, no matter where you go. Children are the same. The children there, you feel like they are pitiful; they have nothing. That's why the Marines were so willing to take anything sent to them from home. People really poured their hearts out and sent us everything. And the Marines would take everything they had and give it to the kids. That was one of the things that would really make you remember home, was going out and playing with the kids for a little while and seeing them. We really enjoyed that."
  Many times, according to Johnson, when the Marines would go out into the villages, it was hard to communicate with the people there because of the language barrier, but other times, there were interpreters available. "When you had an interpreter with you, the people are really thankful that we are there. Their lives have changed immensely since we have been there. They don't have to live in fear anymore."
  Johnson said he is glad to be back home with his family and is looking forward to spending his leave getting to know his wife and daughter again. After his leave is finished, Johnson said he is also looking forward to returning to work in December as a shift sergeant with the Carter County Sheriff's Department.