by Bruce Strand
The song “Anchors Aweigh,” the color navy blue, and the esteem U.S. citizens hold for their men and women in uniform, all have special meaning for Curt and Susan Johnson, lifelong Elk River residents.
Three of their four grown children are U.S. Navy officer. They are Andy, 34; Sara, 30, who’s a doctor; and Matt, 26. Andy and Matt have both served in the Middle East.
“I wouldn’t say surprised, but I’m impressed,” said Curt, asked if he and Susan were surprised to have three military officers in the family. “They always had good work ethics, and that increased because of what they are doing in the Navy. It has been a good influence on them.”
The Johnson siblings — there’s also Shelly, 29, currently living at home and working for Starbucks — don’t get together often, but all the Johnsons had a happy occasion to do so this past Oct. 6, when Matt got married. Matt and Brittany were wed at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. Think guys in uniform are hot? You should see a Navy wedding. They had the raised swords and all the military trimmings.
“Brittany wanted that, even more than me,” said Matt.
Curt and Susan, both ERHS graduates, are postal carriers. Curt is well-known in local tennis as a player and coach.
Following are the stories of the three Naval officers.
Lt. Andy Johnson, 34, joined right out of high school. “I didn’t have a lot planned at the time, and the Navy was a good alternative,” said Johnson, who best made his mark as a math student at ERHS, including a U of M program for exceptional students.
Currently a 16-year veteran who plans to go the distance, he joined as an enlisted man. The recruiter noted his math and science scores and pegged him for nuclear work.
After boot camp and a year and a half of training for his job, Johnson served on a submarine, the USS Buffalo, for 15 months, in Pearl Harbor and 5.5 months in the western Pacific. He was a nuclear electrician’s mate, handling electrical repair, propulsion plant monitoring, and electric plant distribution.
The Buffalo’s executive officer saw Johnson’s officer potential and helped him apply. After 38 months in the Navy, Johnson enrolled in the University of Minnesota ROTC program. In 2005 he graduated with an electrical engineering degree.
Just after he started at the U, Johnson and ROTC classmates watched in horror what happened in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington one Tuesday morning. “The 9-11 attacks,” he reflects, “very much reinforced my decision to become an officer.”
He returned to duty as an officer on the USS Kauffman, a guided missile frigate, as a nuclear electrician’s mate, dealing with electrical repair, propulsion plant monitoring and electric plant distribution. He was at sea for five- and seven-month deployments in the Middle East.
His next ship was the USS Oscar Austin, a destroyer, as damage control assistant, overseeing firefighting, flooding, chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear (CBR-N) defense, and toxic gas.
Currently he’s on shore duty at Naval Station Norfolk, living in a house in Virginia Beach. He picked up an MBA in human resources at Strayer University and serves as a staff officer in the human resources branch, which involves recruiting, training and development, manpower staffing, cost analysis, human resource management, compensation and benefits. His next goal is to become human resources officer.
Johnson and wife, Rachel, a Park Center native whom he met at the U of M, have a 4-year-old son, Raymond, born when he was at sea.
“I have seen a lot of the world, 30 countries,” said Johnson. “The Navy has treated me well and is helping me raise a family. I am going to ride it out as long as I can.”
Lt. Sara (Johnson) Hanson, 30, is a Navy doctor at a clinic on Groton Submarine Base in Connecticut.
The 1999 ERHS graduate’s main activities in school were plays and the choir and at Luther College in Iowa, she originally majored in business. But she switched to biology and chemistry her junior year with the goal of medical school.
Accepted at Midwest University in Chicago and needing $50,000 per year to pay for medical school, she was encouraged by Andy to join the Navy and have them pick up the tab. This appealed to her for another reason as well.
“Andy was already in the Navy, and Matt had just been accepted at the Naval Academy,” she said, “and I felt drawn to taking care of people like my brothers.”
In the Health Professionals Scholarships Program, she drew Navy Reserve stipend through five years of medical school. This involved 45 days of active duty each year: Officer Development School the first year, then family medicine rotations, then clerkships at Navy hospitals. She graduated in 2008 and completed her residency in 2011 at Naval Hospital in Pensacola, Fla.
With an obligation of one year active for each year of medical school paid, she is providing primary care to military and retired military personnel at the base clinic. And she is married to another officer in the medical field.
During residency, she met Wade Hanson, a Navy nurse and educational trainer who grew up in a military family (his dad was Army, and one grandfather was a general). They married after he returned from duty in Afghanistan.
The duty is similar to a civilian clinic except for considerations about how treatments affect the patient’s military career. “So much is physically required of you,” she said. “Our population and our providers have to move with the military, so continuity of care is tough.”
Sara enjoys the life but is not likely to make it a career. Wade has 19 years in service, and she’s only got four, meaning his career will end much sooner. She has 33 months remaining.
“I imagine I will be a doctor on the outside,” she said, “and Wade may do nursing or education, or something completely different.”
Lt. Matt Johnson, 26, said it was an “independent decision” to seek a military career.
“I saw the military as an opportunity to give back to my country,” Matt said, “while getting a free education at one of the leading educational institutions in the country.”
At ERHS, he lettered five years in tennis, played No. 1 two years, and placed fourth in the state in doubles with Mike Master as a senior in 2004. His physical and academic credentials were both impressive as he applied to Naval Academy, West Point and the Air Force Academy. He secured the Congressional appointment to Annapolis after interviews by representatives of Rep. Mark Kennedy and Sen. Mark Dayton.
So, how was Naval Academy life? “Four years of trial by fire,” he says bluntly. “You learn to manage your time and prioritize. They control every aspect of your life.”
While college kids his age could party all they want, the midshipmen were free only from 1000 to 2200 (that’s 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) on Saturday and only in uniform. Up at 0600 every day, he had 16 to 19 credits, physical conditioning, marching, drilling, and Navy heritage training. Summer vacation was three weeks off. (Eight, by his senior year.) In summer they’d get on-ship and sailing experience or work out with Marines.
Johnson majored in U.S. modern economic history while taking the saturation of engineering, chemistry, calculus and electronics that all midshipmen get.
Asked if he enjoyed such an intense experience, he said “valued” would be a more accurate term. “The Naval Academy left me well-prepared for anything life throws at me.”
After graduating with a class of 1,070 in 2008, he served two years on the USS San Antonio, an Amphibious Transport Dock that can carry up to 700 marines and their tanks, trucks, helicopters and other gear. He served as electronic warfare officer, legal officer (non-judicial punishment), administrative officer and assistant training officer. The San Antonio was deployed to the Persian Gulf and to the Horn of Africa for anti-piracy duty.
He’s currently assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as reactor electrical division officer, leading 60 electricians in maintenance, operation and training on electrical distribution systems, and electrical components related to two operation nuclear reactor plants.
“Basically, I make sure the lights stay on,” said Johnson, who lives in Norfolk, Va.
The Abe Lincoln returned in August from an eight months at sea including the Mediterranean supporting the troops in Afghanistan. He’s now serving the ship on shore duty.
During his academy days, the Midshipmen would venture to college campuses for social purposes. “The uniform really helps,” he reveals.
Johnson met a Georgetown student in Washington, D.C., and dated her for a while, but wound up falling in love with her roommate, Brittany Dye.
Matt and Brittany, a Maryland native currently finishing up medical school in Nevada, were married Oct. 6 at the Naval Academy Chapel.
Johnson is currently seeking a career change and hopes the Navy will be part of it. He applied to Judge Advocate General, hoping to be one of four to six Naval officers each year to be sent to law school, and then serve as a Navy lawyer.
“If I’m accepted, I will undoubtedly finish my career in the Navy,” he said. “If not, I have always wanted to go to law school and will probably get out to do that.”
Asked if the TV show “JAG” inspired him, he chuckled, “People always ask me that. But, no, it was ‘A Few Good Men’ that got me.”
“Serving as an officer in the Navy puts you through great personal and professional trials and tribulations. The work can be so taxing that I have gone days on end without rest or relaxation … to accomplish the mission. It has taken me away from friends and family for months on end and involved immense sacrifice by me and my loved ones. But pride in my service is beyond a shadow of a doubt. When my sailors accomplish what they maybe thought they never could, or my division reaches an impressive milestone, it carries with it a sense of pride, both in leading such bright and motivated young individuals, and feeling like I am indeed making a positive contribution in their lives and to this country … I will carry that pride for the rest of my life.”–Navy Lt. Matt Johnson