Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Christopher Johnson laid to rest

The body of Army Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Charles Johnson was laid to rest on top of a rocky hill on Saturday morning in a private burial service attended by family members, a few close friends, and military personnel.

Johnson, 31, a Chinook helicopter pilot and former Green Beret, died on Aug. 14 after his helicopter crashed in Anbar Province, Iraq. Johnson was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, Task Force 49, Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Johnson’s parents, Mary and Charles “Chuck” Johnson, are residents of Gallup. Johnson’s wife, Vivian, and their children, Victoria, Jonathan, and Dylan, have been residing in Huntsville, Ala., during Johnson’s tour of duty in Iraq.

The Rev. George Vink of California, the father-in-law of Johnson’s sister, Dawn, presided over both the burial and memorial services. Although Vink admitted the family was grieving deeply from the devastating loss of Johnson, as Christians, he said, their faith and trust in God remain strong. This was one of the themes that ran throughout both services, from the reading of Psalms 121 at the beginning of the burial service to the benediction at the conclusion of the memorial service.

The family chose to have Johnson’s body buried in the scenic desert hillside, south of Rehoboth, where Johnson, an avid motorcyclist, had enjoyed riding his Harley Davidson. Soldiers from the 1116th Transportation Company of the New Mexico Army National Guard in Gallup, the 126th Military Police Company of Grants, and the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 200th Infantry Brigade of Farmington, served throughout the burial service.

During the service, Vink said he knew Johnson’s father, Chuck, had raised all his children with the teaching that true joy in life comes from putting Christ first, others second, and oneself last. This idea was repeated throughout the memorial service that followed, in which several speakers spoke about Johnson’s faith in God, his devotion to his country, and his love for his family.

“We sow the remains of Chris in the confidence of the resurrection,” said Vink of Johnson’s faith.

Emotions were held in check until Vink committed Johnson’s body to be buried. Many mourners began to sob quietly after “Taps” was played and military pallbearers began to fold the flag that had been draped over the casket. Gen. Mark Dow, deputy adjunct general with the New Mexico National Guard, presented the flag to Vivian Johnson and presented a second flag to Mary and Chuck Johnson.

In the memorial service that followed at Rehoboth Christian Reformed Church, community members filled the sanctuary to near capacity. Through photographs, stories, and songs, family members and friends shared the Chris Johnson they knew and loved: a spunky little boy who called himself “Chris-tougher” who once went out into a street where he stopped cars while dressed in a Superman costume, a teenager who loved pickup trucks and motorcycles and gave his parents more than their fair share of gray hairs, a young man who loved being in the military and lived life to the fullest, and a loving husband and father who was brought to tears when his young stepson, Jonathan, thanked him for becoming his dad.

Chief Warrant Officer Sam Waldon, one of Johnson’s closest friends throughout his military career, said he and Johnson were brothers, who had just been raised in different parts of the country. They had wanted to move to the same military base after Johnson’s tour of duty in Iraq, he explained, so they could raise their children together.

Waldon said Johnson’s dedication to duty was something that most people would never understand. Whether Johnson was serving in the infantry, Special Forces, or flying a helicopter, Waldon said, “He loved it all.”

Johnson was a hard-headed and impatient guy, he added, who wanted to share the responsibility of serving in Iraq. If Johnson “could play the rewind button” of his life, Waldon said, Johnson would live it again the same way.

“Courage and honor,” Waldon said. “Those are the two words Chris lived by.”

Johnson’s uncle, Rog Bruins, compared Johnson’s life to a race like the one described in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Although Johnson’s race proved not to be a long one, Bruins said, Johnson ran it with discipline, perseverance, and direction.

“Chris is my hero,” said Bruins, noting that Johnson was a man who loved God, loved his family, and loved his country.

Betty Wieland, from Johnson’s home state of Michigan, described herself as Johnson’s “other mother.” As a young man, she explained, Johnson moved in with her after his parents moved to Gallup.

“His boisterous presence filled all the empty spaces,” she recalled. “He brought love and laughter and unpredictability and hope.”

Although Johnson died a young man, Wieland said, he packed more living into his 31 years of life than other people do in 80 years.

“He truly lived,” added Wieland, who said the purposes which God created Johnson are now complete. Wieland said God challenges “us to embrace life and death as fully” as Johnson did.

“Thanks be to God for the gift of loving Chris,” she concluded.

From the Gallup Independent

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Christopher C. Johnson dies 'of injuries suffered when his helicopter crashed'