On May 1, Matt Johnson was planning to go to work as usual.
Johnson is Air Force Senior Airman Johnson, assigned to the 377th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron in Kuwait.
Then his buddy called.
“You’re going to Afghanistan,” his buddy told him. “You’ve got five hours before you leave for Bagram Air Force Base.”
Such immediate deployments are routine for Johnson, who is a member of a 12-man team usually assigned to perimeter security.
He is a graduate of numerous pre-deployment schools at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, chosen because the topography and geography closely resembles Afghanistan.
Appropriately, Creech also is one of the operation centers that control remotely piloted vehicles used in Afghanistan and Iraq for loitering hours of reconnaissance and bombing missions.
“I was on a quick reactionary forces, or a ‘QRF,’ he explains. “We would get hit by indirect fire two, maybe three times a week, always at night.”
WHAT WAS not routine was that before the day was over, he would be within 10 feet of the president of the United States.
“We didn’t know why we were there,” Johnson said, earlier this week in Beeville, where he is on leave visiting his parents. “We thought they were beefing up security for the anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death.”
His team — one of seven — learned who they would be guarding only six hours before the president’s arrival. By then, Barack Obama already was aboard Air Force One.
It would be a long day.
Johnson’s team, along with the secret service, was assigned to guard the perimeter of the hangar where President Obama would be speaking.
The A.C. Jones graduate would be armed with a 9mm Beretta, an M4 assault rifle and a portable radio used to communicate with the rest of his team members.
Air Force One, using a technique perfected in Vietnam, descended using a spiral or corkscrew approach, starting as high as 18,000 feet and sharply banking as it descends.
It is designed to keep the plane directly over the field as it descends, minimizing the risk that the plane might be hit by enemy missiles or gunfire.
The air over Afghanistan is not the friendliest of skies.
The president landed at 2 a.m.
“HE WALKED straight to the hangar,” Johnson says. “I was assigned to cover the hangar doors.” The large doors were closed; the president’s entourage entered through a small door that allows access to the hangar.
“He was about 10 feet from me,” Johnson says. “I saluted him, and he saluted back.”
Inside, the president spoke of the soldiers gathered there in the pre-dawn darkness. “Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places. In an age when so many institutions have come up short, these Americans have stood tall…in their faces, we see what is best in ourselves and our country.”
Johnson, being assigned to guard the perimeter, could not hear the president’s address — which also was televised to the United States.
Four hours later, after meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and visiting a hospital, Obama returned home.
JOHNSON then celebrated his 23rd birthday.
“I name my birthdays by deployments,” he laughs. “Nineteen, Lackland AFB; 20, Bagram; 21, Spangdahlam, Germany; 22, Kirkland AFB, Albuquerque; and 23, Bagram.
He has different plans for his next few birthdays.
“I was supposed to get out of the Air Force on March 31,” he says. “But I extended for one more deployment.”
And then — Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas, on the GI Bill, and then to Texas A&M.
“I haven’t decided on a major, yet,” he says. “I might end up being a welder, or doing some other kind of oilfield work.”
OF PRESIDENT Obama’s visit, he has only memories. As part of the security team, he was ordered to leave his cell phone and his camera safely stowed in his locker — in Kuwait.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.