JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – Senior Master Sgt. Rick Johnson is awarded the Bronze Star and an Air Force Commendation Medal for his heroic actions and meritorious achievement during his deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
SMSgt. Johnson is the Operations Flight Chief for the 69th Aerial Port Squadron here. October 2019, he was notified he would deploy to Camp Taji, Iraq, where he would take over as the 442nd Air Expeditionary Squadron Superintendent. Since this would be his third deployment to a combat zone, he was fearless and ready for the road ahead. Little did he know this deployment would change his life forever.
“The deployment wasn’t a surprise, as the 69th had an obligation to fill positions in Iraq,” he said. “I previously served in Afghanistan twice, so I was used to the type of (hostile) environment I would be in. Aside from the mission, I truly thought this deployment would be like the ones prior.”
Once he arrived, Johnson took on the role of superintendent, working directly for the commander. In addition, he also took on the role of interim first sergeant. Moreover, he immediately experienced the hostility of constant rocket attacks, and threats posed by unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I worked directly under the commander so I was constantly on the move,” he said. “Between supporting the Airmen at the various locations to providing insight for aerial port operations, I was pretty busy. Things were going great. I was actually enjoying this deployment.”
Johnson has a vast amount of knowledge about airfield operations due to his civilian job as an airport manager, and he was able to use his expertise to assist his commander and the airfield management team on numerous operations. He directed seamless agile combat support and uninterrupted aerial port and airfield management operations supporting nearly 10,000 missions, airlifting over 53,000 passengers, facilitating the movement of 19,000 tons of cargo and enabling the execution of 12 airstrikes resulting in the destruction of 210 targets.
“The knowledge I have from my civilian job was helpful out there; it helped me to be a little more rounded when it came to the airfield,” he said. “I was the subject matter expert for aerial port operations. Not only was I able to perform my primary duties, but having all of the additional knowledge that I have, I was also able to work with air traffic control as well as help the commander get a better understanding of details.”
Things were going well for Johnson. He was getting the job done, staying in contact with his family and keeping out of harm’s way. That is until March 11th, when his deployment went into a downward spiral that would affect the rest of his time there.
“It was night time, I was lying in bed getting ready to go to sleep when I heard a loud explosion; it was so close you almost felt the rattle in your teeth,” he said. “Our housing unit had been hit with a rocket. I knew for a fact that there was no way I was going to survive if I stayed in my room. I ran for my life to get to the bunker. This was the most terrified I had ever been in my life.”
Johnson bolted from his room and headed for the nearest bunker. While running for cover, three more rockets hit. He knew his life could be over at any moment. Despite fearing for his life, he remained calm on the outside in order to calm others who were just as terrified.
“I never experienced this type of fear; all around me people were screaming. No one knew what to do,” he said. “You go through all this training, but when it actually happens, you’re frozen in fear. I knew I couldn’t just stay in the bunker. There were people trapped in the rooms. I knew I needed to do something.
Once the explosions ceased, Johnson left the bunker, went back to his room, and grabbed his gear. He knew he had a small window of time to attempt to save lives before more rockets hit the housing unit. Without regard for his own life, he immediately set out to do everything he could to save his wingmen.
Johnson risked his personal safety to clear rooms in an area fraught with unexploded ordinance to provide critical care. When he arrived at the struck housing unit, he immediately entered the unit that was in danger of structural collapse at any second, clearing deadly debris and the remnants of the room while maneuvering to assess two wounded Airmen.
“I went in that room and saw the injured Airmen, I began to perform lifesaving procedures until the medics arrived,” he said. “Everyone was scared, but we don’t leave each other behind, I did all I could do.”
Throughout the duration of the night, the camp was hit with a total of 26 rockets. Three days later, March 14th, an additional 30 rockets hit, leaving three service members dead.
“In a matter of a few hours, all of our lives changed,” he said. “This is an event we train for but we are never really prepared for that moment. No one is. It was devastating.”
Despite the dreadful incident, Johnson knew he had to remain strong and calm for his Airmen.
“These Airmen are young, a lot of 18, 19, 20 year olds,” he said. “I felt their pain. We were all traumatized by this, but as their first sergeant it was important that I supported them the best way possible.”
Johnson said that after the attack, many Airmen were fearful of sleeping in the housing unit and chose to sleep in the passenger terminal instead.
“We understood their pain and their fear,” he said. “The passenger terminal was a safe hardened facility; they felt safe there. Despite what was happening, we were still in a deployed environment and the mission still had to get done, so whatever I had to do to ensure the safety and security of the Airmen, I did.”
Johnson continued the mission, but once his six-month mark came, he was ready to come home. However, due to the pandemic, his deployment was extended for another two and a half months.
“I was ready to get back and see my family, he said. “But then COVID happened, and I, of course, was extended. This deployment was taking its toll on me. But I’m grateful for the experience.”
Johnson finally made it home after eight and a half months in Iraq. He was recognized for his accomplishments during a ceremony with his friends and family in attendance.
“SMSgt. Johnson’s heroic actions are reflective of his ability to provide assertive and decisive leadership when it matters most,” said Chief MSgt. Israel Nunez, 69th APS squadron superintendent. “He was tasked with the role, tasked knowing the risks that he would encounter. When that danger presented itself, Senior MSgt. Johnson put his own safety on the line to provide Airmen with critical care and guidance during the aftermath of an extremely treacherous attack.”
Johnson said this deployment is one he will never forget, and the activities that happened on March 11th changed his life forever.
“I didn’t do it for the medals,” he said. “The position I filled was great. Knowing I did my job, and to be in that environment where I was able to build those relationships with my commander and my Airmen was all the fulfillment I needed. At the end of the day the medals are extra, but I am humbled and appreciative of the awards I received.”