CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (April 8, 2019) – Ejected from his turret position in an F350 truck, laying on the ground critically injured in Iraq nearly 12 years ago, Billy Johnson remembers saying an “Our Father,” not fearing death. Today he stood full of life in front of family, friends and his priest, thankful for their love and support as he received the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom during a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Tennessee Valley Authority Central Labs near Chickamauga Lock.
Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commander, presented the medal to Johnson, recognizing his heroic service and the severe injuries he sustained Dec. 9, 2007 when his security detail supported a Corps’ mission.
The general recalled that during the surge of forces into Iraq at the time, danger loomed on all main and alternate supply routes. Executing duties for the reconstruction of Iraq, the Corps of Engineers required secure transportation to and from project sites, the kind of security Johnson and his security team provided.
“On that day in 2007, Billy and the rest of the security detail were on a convoy when insurgents detonated an improvised explosive device. The concussion ejected Billy from his vehicle, critically injuring him,” Toy said.
None of his crewmates survived, and Johnson suffered severe injuries, including losing fingers on his hand and a leg as a result of the IED attack. Eyewitness accounts describe a big explosion and plume of smoke, followed by an immediate response by others in the convoy to reach the blast site, where a medic provided lifesaving first aid. The Army quickly medevacked Johnson, the beginning of a very long road to recovery.
Toy said that Johnson and others like him are super heroes who leave their lives, their families, and loved ones to help other countries and deployed forces be safe and secure.
“Having suffered from the loss and injuries to Soldiers in my battalion during our year-long deployment to Iraq, I want you to know that I understand the consequence of what happened that day in Iraq,” Toy said. “I know you have worked extremely hard to overcome so many challenges as a result of your service to your country. I appreciate you.”
With several tours in Iraq under his belt, Johnson said he returned to the region in 2007 at age 39 because of his love for adventure. He had been in the country for about six months when the explosive attack wounded him.
He said he remembers everything vividly, and to this day has about 500 pieces of shrapnel in his body. He also has a blood clot filter, which is designed to protect him from the shrapnel’s potential harmful side effects.
“I remember everything from the time of the explosion to the time of the yellow and orange heat in my face, to the time the tremendous jolt to my right leg, to waking up on the ground on my back – seeing my leg gone – seeing my arm turned 180 degrees – seeing that my femoral artery had been cut,” Johnson recalled. “Also, I had a compound fracture to my left leg, which I couldn’t see how damaged it was.”
Johnson described the moments after the explosion as very challenging. With a collapsed lung, he drug himself with his right elbow across the desert floor looking for his crew. While struggling to move across the ground he heard the sound of ground fire and had a very hard time breathing.
“I knew I had to get that under control, so I made a decision I had to concentrate on something,” he said. “I picked one family member and friend where there was a time between us specifically, and I concentrated on those memories. I was able to slow my breathing down. And before that I had made the sign of the cross, said an ‘Our Father,’ and if I had passed, I had passed.”
He would spend time in a burn unit and more than five months in the hospital recovering from multiple injuries.
Nearly a dozen years later, the 51-year-old former Marine said publicity is not his thing, but he chose to tell his story at the award ceremony to draw attention to the others he served with that have not yet received the Defense of Freedom Medal. He said he is grateful for the support of his family and friends, especially Phillip Gonzales, an ex-special forces medic, who submitted the award nomination for the security detail in 2012.
More than 250-pages of incident reports, witness statements, photographs and death certificates in justification for their awards were submitted without approval. Determined to recognize Johnson’s sacrifice and service, Gonzales resubmitted the nomination in February 2018.
“Despite the passing of years, these men’s faces and their memories remain vivid. If you can please authorize the Defense of Freedom Medal, at least for Billy, I would be grateful and at peace,” Gonzales wrote to then Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.
The Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom acknowledges civilian employees of the Department of Defense who are killed or wounded in the line of duty. The medal symbolizes the extraordinary fidelity and essential service of the civilian workforce who are an integral part of DOD and contribute to the preservation of national security. The Defense of Freedom Medal is the civilian equivalent to a Purple Heart for members of the armed forces.
The Defense of Freedom medal was announced by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Sept. 27, 2001 and was initially presented to 37 people who had been killed or wounded in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lt. Col. Cullen Jones, Nashville District commander, explained during the ceremony that the medal itself consists of a golden circle framing a bald eagle holding a shield which exemplifies the principles of freedom and the defense of those freedoms upon which our nation is founded.
Jones added that the reverse of the medal is inscribed with "On Behalf of a Grateful Nation" with a space for the recipient's name to be inscribed. The laurel wreath on the medal represents honor and high achievement. The ribbon is the red, white and blue. The red stripes commemorate valor and sacrifice. The wide blue stripe represents strength. The white stripes symbolize liberty as represented in our national flag. The number of red stripes represents the four terrorist attacks using hijacked airplanes and the single blue stripe represents the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Conducting the ceremony near a Corps of Engineers navigation lock symbolized Billy Johnson’s role in providing security for USACE teams in Iraq.
News and information is available on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps, and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.