09-08-03, 10:33 PM
Hit By A Mistake,
A Marine Asks Why; Marine Facing Recovery After Bombing Accident While Assigned to Anti-Terrorism Duty in Africa
By John Railey JOURNAL REPORTER
Marine Cpl. Steven Johnson is another wounded soldier back from war.
But Johnson's war was different. While other members of his reserve company from Greensboro went to Kuwait and Iraq this winter, he agreed to serve as a helicopter radio operator in Djibouti, a small desert country in Eastern Africa that coalition forces use as a base for the war on terrorism.
From the time that nine 750-pound bombs dropped around him the morning of June 22, Johnson said, he realized that his company had been hit by the U.S. Air Force. The Marines had been participating in a training exercise with the Air Force, he explained, and there were no enemies in the area.
One Marine died and seven others and one sailor were injured that day. Johnson, severely burned and with numerous bones broken, almost died. After two months in a military hospital, he returned to his home in Kannapolis on Aug. 29.
What awaits Johnson now is at least a year of therapy. His dream of being a police officer is on hold.
And he has had a different homecoming from most wounded warriors. Though Johnson has been honored in his community, medals traditionally aren't handed out for training injuries.
"A bomb's a bomb, I don't care whether your friends drop it or your enemies drop it," said Johnson, who is 22. "I was still doing my duty."
Air Force officials have not contacted him or his family. Johnson said he knows that the bombing was an accident, but he is left with questions about why it happened during an exercise designed to enhance communication procedures between air and ground forces.
"The investigation is still pending, awaiting final approval," said Lt. Gary Arasin, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Air Force. "It's one of those things. You train your folks, you equip them, you try to prevent accidents from happening. But we're in a dangerous business. That's basically it." Crawling from the wreckage
Military accidents, whether in training or combat, can be as dramatic as a bombing or as commonplace as a Humvee crash. Accidental deaths have long outweighed those in combat. During 1991, the year that included the first Gulf War, 931 service people died in accidents and 148 died in "hostile" incidents, according to the Department of Defense.
By the time Johnson joined Junior ROTC at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, the number of accidental deaths had been dipping for years, thanks to enhanced technology and safety measures.
After graduating from high school, Johnson enlisted in the reserves and studied at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
09-08-03, 10:34 PM
In January, he said, his sergeant called from Greensboro and said that the coalition forces in Djibouti needed a radio operator. Johnson went, figuring that he would soon be bound for Iraq anyway.
His mother said she felt a sort of relief at the news.
"If he had to go somewhere, this would maybe be a safer place," Patricia Johnson said.
Johnson was with a Marine helicopter squadron at Camp Lemonier Djibouti. There was a lot of boredom and training, Johnson said, but he also took part in some activities that he is not allowed to talk about.
That's not unusual for those serving in Djibouti, said Patrick Garrett, an associate analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Alexandria, Va., that studies defense and other issues.
"The only time you hear about what they're doing is if they make an enormous mistake or have an enormous success, like killing an al-Qaida member in Yemen last year," he said.
The accident in June was a mistake that made national news.
It was similar to three other training exercises that the Air Force and Marines had held in Djibouti since December.
Two choppers had just landed at an observation point near the bombing range. Johnson was monitoring radio traffic in one of them when the Air Force B-52 dropped the bombs.
Somehow, Johnson said, he dragged himself from the burning helicopter and ran about 15 feet, with his shin bone popping out of his right leg, before he fell among some rocks.
The Marine captain who had been piloting his chopper, Capt. Seth Michaud of Hudson, Mass., was lying on the sand near him, Johnson said. He had massive chest and stomach injuries, and he died about half an hour later. He was 27 and left behind a wife and young son.
Johnson suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, a broken right leg, two broken arms, a shattered left elbow, nerve damage in his left arm, and numerous injuries from shrapnel. He later learned that he had lost 40 percent of the hearing in his right ear, but doctors said that he should get most of his hearing back.
Apparently, the observation point was mistaken for the target point, said Michaud's father, Francis Michaud of Hudson.
In the minutes after the bombing, Johnson said, he struggled to survive.
"Boot camp'll give you this mentality; you almost think you're invincible," he said. "The first bomb hits, you figure you're not invincible. That mentality did save my life, though."
He said he didn't feel so much pain as weariness. Fellow Marines urged him to stay awake, and Johnson said he did so by talking about his fiancee and his parents.
He was flown to a Djibouti hospital, where he finally passed out. He doesn't remember anything else, he said, until waking up at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, on July 4.
For a month, Johnson was in intensive care. His 5-foot, 10-inch frame shriveled from 160 pounds to 128.
He spent his final month there going through twice-daily cleansing of his burns, an ordeal in which nurses stripped away his dead skin. He learned how to stand and then to walk again.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stopped by to see Johnson during a visit to the hospital. But no one from the Air Force has made any effort to apologize, visit or console him, which bothers some in Johnson's family.
"You'd have thought they'd send a letter," said Melissa Moser, Johnson's older sister.
There are reasons that Air Force officials haven't contacted Johnson, said Dan Goure, the vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., a think thank that deals with military issues.
"Don't dismiss the Air Force as being a bunch of insensitive slobs,'' he said. "It may bureaucratic or it may even be legal.... In the United States, an apology may be a legal admission of guilt."
Defense analysts and military historians note that the Air Force has a strong history of investigations that hold its pilots accountable when warranted. Such investigations are especially sensitive when they involve the accidental bombings of American troops.
Johnson and Francis Michaud said they are ready for the investigation to be over.
"Hopefully, they can understand what happened, to save some future lives," Michaud said.
He is not worried about possible penalties against those whose errors may have cost his son's life.
"It doesn't change the outcome," he said.
Johnson is settling back into civilian life now, splitting his days between therapy paid for by the government and time with his fiancee, Jamie Jenkins. He said that his doctors tell him that after more surgeries he should make as much as a 95 percent recovery. But getting there is hard.
Jenkins sometimes tries to help him handle his cutlery at meals, but he rebuffs her efforts, saying that he wants to do it himself. She cleans his wounds, and recently she pulled from his ear a piece of shrapnel that had worked its way to the surface.
He will carry several other pieces in his body the rest of his life, Johnson said.
He carries emotional scars as well, moments in which he said he is back inside the burning chopper, seeing the flames, smelling the gas and hearing the live ammo packed inside begin to explode.
Occasionally, he and his family talk about the bombing.
Patricia Johnson emphasizes that accidents happen, but said that "it reeks" that her son didn't get a medal for incurring his injuries. Seth Michaud was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but there was no posthumous medal for him.
"Was he any less patriotic or dedicated or whatever than somebody who died due to enemy fire?'' Michaud's father asked. "He made the ultimate sacrifice, and is that lessened by the fact that it was friendly fire rather than enemy fire that killed him? I struggle with that. But I'm not sure that a medal would mean anything."
Several military scholars said that medals and awards should be reserved for combat.
Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that training deaths are a tragedy but "most of the time, we give awards for something positive happening."
Steven Johnson didn't know the crew of the B-52, which he said was probably flying from a base on the Indian Ocean. He doesn't get mad about the accident. But his best friend, Matthew Gobble of Concord, does.
Gobble, also a Marine corporal, said that friends of his were killed when the Air Force accidentally bombed them during a March 23 fight for a bridge in Nasiryah, Iraq.
Gobble, who was near that bombing, said he found it tough to look at Johnson and his wounds.
"It brought back some bad memories," he said. "It was hard.... I'd just lost friends to stupidity, pretty much."
Johnson is more reserved in talking about his bombing.
He said he believes in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq and that it was worth all of his injuries to take part in that fight. Still, he can't help but wonder.
The training exercise in which he was bombed had been planned for at least a week, he said, so why couldn't the error have been anticipated and corrected?
"I mean, normally, they check and double-check these things two or three times," he said.
Nor is he sure that he is ready to forgive the bombers.
"If they feel remorse about it, yes," Johnson said. "If they're cold-hearted about it, no."
GRAPHIC: Journal photos by Ted Richardson , Steven Johnson visits with his fiancee, Jamie Jenkins. He is home after two months of treatment at a hospital in San Antonio.
1. Johnson begins therapy with Diane Wassum at Carolinas Medial Center in Charlotte. A8: Steven Johnson and Jamie Jenkins survey some of the leg burns he suffered while serving with the Marines in Djibouti.
2. Johnson and his mother, Patricia Johnson, go through some "welcome home" mail he has received since returning from a Texas hospital, where he was treated for burns and fractures.
3. Matthew Gobble of Concord visits with Johnson at Johnson's home in Kannapolis. Gobble served as a Marine in the war in Iraq.
© Copyright 2003 Winston-Salem Journal
04-03-08, 11:16 AM
I was a medic (doc) there who has been trying since that horrible day to get ahold of these guys and see how they are doing. Please if you could please let him know I am trying to get ahold of him.....I would appreicate it. THANK YOU.