News: Lewis veteran overcomes adversity to represent Army at Warrior Games
Story by Jennifer Spradlin
COLORADO SPRING, Colo. – Every morning when Chess Johnson wakes up, he does what he likes to call, “the dirty thirty,” or 30 push-ups, pull-ups, dips, lunges, squats and back exercises. A former infantryman, physical fitness and mental toughness were traits drilled into him during his seven years of military service.
In less than a week, he will represent the Army at the 2012 Warrior Games in the 100m, 200m, 1500m and 400m team relay races - despite the loss of his right eye to an enemy sniper round in Iraq more than five years ago.
“I grew up in a small town. Everyone in my family was involved in mining, farming or ranching. I knew I wanted to serve my country and joined the Army right out of high school,” Johnson said.
He arrived at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2001 as the Army was standing up its first Stryker units. Strykers are eight-wheeled, armored combat vehicles, which allow troops to be deployed quickly but also securely, in a wide spectrum of field conditions.
Johnson is proud he was involved at the ground level, creating the standard to which all other Stryker brigades would model themselves after. In fact, his entire Army career was spent in the same platoon of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He ascended from the rank of private to the rank of staff sergeant, responsible for the care and training of nine to 11 soldiers, his brothers, his family, as he calls them. He dreamed of one day taking over the platoon, a dream that was never able to come to fruition.
Six months into his second deployment to Iraq, Dec. 3, 2006, his unit encountered what he was later told amounted to the worst ambush since 2003. There were more than 30 roadside bombs, 15 insurgents armed with AK-47s and one sniper. When the dust settled, they had wounded six insurgents, killed seven and suffered only one U.S. casualty: Staff Sgt. Chess Johnson.
Johnson is able to remember much of the incident that changed his life forever, and what he was unable to remember, his soldiers subsequently helped fill in the blanks. Approximately one minute into the ambush, he was returning enemy fire from his position when the sniper’s round tore through the right side of his face; his right eye was completely destroyed and the damage to his face required reconstructive surgery.
Johnson dropped down into the Stryker momentarily to recover convinced, at the time, he had only been wounded by shrapnel and re-emerged to continue firing. He was unable to locate the enemy sniper with his optics and pushed them aside, relying on “Kentucky windage,” a technique he knew from being a “country boy” to correct the placement of his rounds when he noticed them hitting to the high right. He was able to kill the sniper and was reloading his weapon when one of his soldiers pulled him back into the safety of the vehicle.
“He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around and he said, ‘Sergeant, you don’t understand the catastrophicness of this event.’ I don’t even know if that is a real word. I don’t know how someone comes up with that in the middle of a firefight,” he recalls, with a slight smile. “Another soldier reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief and puts it over my right eye and later I was told, if he had not done that I would have bled out and died.”
Johnson said he was proud of his soldiers’ efforts to save his life, but even more proud to learn they went out on mission without him the very next day. “They didn’t need me. It proved as a leader, I had been doing my job.”
Johnson remembers very little of his time at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He recalls waking up and screaming at his nurse to find his weapon and gear and later being angry his soldiers had not come to visit him because he thought he was still in Iraq. An even bigger challenge met him upon arrival at Walter Reed Medical Center; he woke to find himself incapable of motor function or the ability to speak. Doctors told him he would be lucky to walk again or communicate efficiently.
Stubborn and unwilling to be told what he could or couldn’t do, Johnson fast-tracked his recovery program. He hated being in the hospital setting and wanted to be back in Iraq with his fellow soldiers. Instead, he returned to his unit and served on the rear detachment until his unit redeployed from Iraq. He was then transferred to a Warrior Transition Unit, where soldiers who require more than six months of rehabilitation can recover and prepare for transition back to the regular Army or to life as a civilian.
It was during this phase and the time after his medical retirement that Johnson turned to alcohol to self-medicate a number of personal and professional disappointments. It was a low point in his life, and it took him approximately three years to get back on the right track.
“A lot of it had to do with my grandfather,” Johnson said of his recovery. “He raised me. I got into some trouble when I was younger. I moved in with my grandparents and he put the thumb on me, he said ‘alright, you’re going to be a man. The kind of [stuff] you were doing around before doesn’t fly around here.’ And I looked at myself in the mirror one day, and I heard his voice, and I wasn’t happy with who I was anymore. It was time to change.”
It was around the same time Johnson met his current wife, Krainne, and began to channel his negative feelings into something positive: competitive sports. He got some advice that changed his life. The advice was this, “soldier up.” Essentially, it was time for him to accept he couldn’t be a soldier anymore, it was beyond his control, but he could still represent his country.
“I thought, if I can earn the right to wear another uniform, I’m happy,” he said.
In 2011, he competed in the Rocky Mountain State Games in Colorado, medaling in the 400m dash, long jump, triple jump and discus. He then competed in the Valor games in Chicago and found success again in archery, tandem bicycling and discus.
Johnson is motivated not by self-glory but by the opportunity to honor the 10 soldiers he lost during the deployment to Iraq.
“When I go out there and I compete, I carry my brothers with me. I carry my flag,” he said. “I’m a religious guy, I believe there is something after this world, but I also think there are things I’m going to miss about it. My brothers don’t get the luxury of feeling how bad it hurts to run a mile anymore. They don’t have the luxury to decide whether to quit or not to quit, so whenever I feel like quitting I have to remember I am pushing through for them.”
Johnson looks forward to competing in the Warrior Games and hopes to make the U.S. Paralympic team. The events give him a chance to, as he says, “get out of the house” and interact with other people. He feels comfortable around the military and veteran community in a way he can’t duplicate in civilian society. He also feels honored to get the opportunity to meet and train with the other athletes.
“I have met so many of these athletes who don’t have arms or don’t have legs, and I would pick them to be on my team over a full-bodied, full-capable athlete. The heart that every one of these soldiers have to just get out of bed in the morning – it’s pretty remarkable, pretty remarkable to be around,” he said.