News: G.I. Johnson: A real American action figure
Story by: Sgt. Chad Menegay
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Hasbro coined the term "action figure" in 1964 to sell its G.I. Joe doll, the 12-inch military figure that had moveable parts, multiple uniforms and weapons. G.I. Joe, the world’s first action figure, was a wildly popular toy and a tribute to the U.S. service member in the ‘60s.
One of the boys caught up in the craze was the kid that grew to be Sgt. 1st Class Steve Johnson, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the print section with the 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Columbus, Ohio, native.
“G.I. Joe was the ultimate manly dude,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like the Ken doll from Barbie; this guy was the man.”
He said that as a child his Family couldn’t afford to provide a vast collection of toys, but would buy a G.I. Joe for him here and there.
“I would take my two and go over with my buddy’s 10 or 15, and we would play with them in the backyard,” Johnson said. “We’d be out digging stuff up, making tunnels, stacking things, throwing them around and fighting with them.”
As a kid, the action figures were perhaps just toys, but now as an adult they have come to symbolize life itself for Steve Johnson.
Not only did he grow up with the action figure G.I. Joe, as both were born in 1964, but Johnson said he believes he, himself, has become an action figure.
“I’m like an older action figure,” he said. “I consider myself in spirit and heart an action figure.”
Members of his unit agree. During Operation Iraqi Freedom II they nicknamed him “Scuba Steve,” after the action figure from the movie “Big Daddy.”
Johnson, a former infantryman, said he used to consider himself a “rough and tumble kind of guy. You know, jumping out of planes, running around with heavy weapons. I relate to those guys.”
And at 46, he still relates to G.I. Joes.
He owns a massive collection of 12-inch action figures, around 200, with hundreds of uniforms, weapons and countless accessories.
“It’s not about the toys anymore, but about how I can represent my history as a Soldier, my Family’s history as service members and the guys that I’ve served with,” Johnson said.
American Soldiers are his heroes, he said
“Military action figures are one of the only things that specifically focuses on us as American Soldiers,” Johnson said.
His wife, Victoria, said Steve has always tried to represent the branches that his Family has served in and has gone out of his way to include her own interests.
“Prior to joining the Navy, my plan was to become an Army warrant officer and fly helicopters,” Victoria said. “After discussing this with Steven, he purchased a female helicopter pilot to add to his collection. So now there are at least two women, a Navy Petty Officer and Army pilot.”
Steve said he can create a company-sized element of infantry Soldiers from several different eras.
“The eras I’m more interested in than others are ones that members of my Family or myself have served in,” he said.
Steve said his dad, Marvin Johnson Sr., served as an Air Force fuel handler during the Korean War, and his brother, Thomas Grace, in the Vietnam War. Another brother, Martin Johnson Jr., served in the Army, as did his sister, Linde Fairchild. Another sister, Cheryl, served in the Army National Guard.
“Our Family’s got close to 150 years of combined service, and I’ve got nephews that have just started their careers in the service,” Steve said.
Growing up in a military household during the Vietnam War era may have contributed to Steve’s intrigue with military history.
He said as a 7-year old, he would watch the Vietnam developments on TV “all the time, Walter Cronkite, Nixon, all that stuff.”
“He’s the most patriotic person and knows more about military history than anyone I know,” said Sgt. 1st Class William Smith, broadcast section noncommissioned officer-in-charge with the 196th MPAD and a Felicity, Ohio, native. “He’s a big military history reader. He knows a lot about military battles and likes to read the autobiographical accounts. You can hear it coming out when he talks, how much he actually knows.”
Steve said he could give a military history lesson on military operations, tactics, equipment and uniforms with his action figure collection.
“You can see the transformation from what that guy wore in WWII up to what that guy wears now,” he said. “I can accurately represent that in all services.”
Steve said his kids, 14-year old Aaron and 7-year old Zachary, “like to hang out with dad, so sometimes we’ll get together and play with them or take pictures with them.”
He said that he enjoys playing with his kids and having “little battles” with the action figures.
“They’re always in the collection when I’m gone,” Steve said. “They’re fascinated with it. They go in there and it’s a bunch of little dudes looking at them.”
“Steven has always ‘customized’ his figures with different camouflages, U.S. or foreign designs, unit insignias, weapons, uniforms, you name it,” she said. “Before you know it, the kids are doing the same things with their figures. I think, as a Family, we are all pretty creative, and we start talking about ‘add this, do that,’ and everyone comes up with cool ideas.”
“I could show you an M-16 that looks just like my weapon that I carry here, and it almost functions the same,” he said.
Steve said he is considering building dioramas of Iraq and Bosnia, places where he has served.
“I could build a house and have the guys stacked up, like they’re going to go in and apprehend a terrorist, or where they’re out in the street meeting people and talking,” he said. “I’m partial to paratroopers. I was thinking about getting creative and building the side of an airplane with guys jumping out. One guy built a 1:6 scale airplane. Another guy built an entire train for his German army. People build houses. I hope to build historic scenes and take pictures to display them someday.”
Steve Johnson, a railroad conductor back home in his civilian occupation, is considering retirement from the military next year after 21 years of combined active duty and National Guard service.
“When Steven retires, I think his collection will grow,” Victoria said. “It may be a way to keep him connected to the service.”
Smith said there’s no doubt in his mind that Steve will also maintain real-life connections with service members and Veterans.
He said Steve has made a great number of friends over the years, because “he truly cares about people.”
Steve said he has a fascination with military figures, real or not.
“It’s not about toys for me,” he said. “It’s about being able to maintain my childhood, my Family, my friendships and my present life as a Soldier.”