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Erwin couple’s son gets posthumous honor for his heroic actions in faraway Niger

Photo Contributed • Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Johnson stands in the desert terrain of Niger, the African nation where he was killed as a result of a terrorist ambush.

By Richard Rourk

An Erwin couple is feeling renewed pride in their son, Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Johnson, who was killed in 2017 in an infamous ambush by terrorist forces while serving with the U.S. Army in the African nation of Niger.

The late sergeant’s father, J.W. Johnson, contacted The Erwin Record to share the news that his son, along with the late Sgt. La David Johnson, no relation to J.W. or Jeremiah, recently became only the second and third combat soldiers to receive the honor of posthumously joining the ranks of the U.S. Army’s elite Green Berets Unit. 

“This was not something we asked for,” J.W. Johnson said. “I simply wrote a letter to General (Francis) Beaudette thanking the Army for all they have done. He was so moved by the letter and with all of the qualifications that Jeremiah had they moved to promote Jeremiah into the Green Berets.”

J.W.’s son, who was born in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1977, was raised in a Marine Corps household. 

“We come from a long line of service men and women,” explained J.W. “Jeremiah owned a successful business and joined the Army later in life. He was 29 when he enlisted.”

Johnson joined the United States Army in 2007 and joined active duty forces in 2008. Johnson quickly moved up the ranks and joined the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3212, who would go on to support Operation Juniper Shield in Niger. Johnson’s unit conducted a mounted reconnaissance patrol through the Tillaberi Region of Niger. The Tillaberi Region, located south of the border between Niger and Mali, serves as a safe haven for various violent extremist organizations associated with Al Qaeda. J.W. explained that the terrain his son patrolled is arid desert with only sparse vegetation for concealment. The region is isolated from friendly forces by extreme distances.

It was in the Tillaberi region where a terrorist ambush claimed the lives of 11 U.S. soldiers.

They did not go down without a fight, according to J.W. Johnson.

“Jeremiah’s battalion, which consisted of 11 soldiers, fought against more than a hundred Al Qaeda terrorists.

Erwin Record Photo by Richard Rourk • J.W. and Jo-Anne Johnson show a framed display of mementos related to their son, Jeremiah.

 His father described  the action as an act of bravery against insurmountable odds. 

On Oct. 4, 2017, the combined element departed the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger on a planned 45-mile route back to their base in Ouallam, Niger, when a superior terrorist force numbering over 100 personnel executed an ambush from prepared positions with overwhelming small arms, machine gun, indirect fire and vehicle-mounted weapon systems. 

The initial attack was directed at the rear of the convoy but quickly intensified as the sizable and well-trained enemy force advanced through the concealment of the adjacent wood line. As the enemy advanced, they shifted the focus of their small arms and machine gun fire to the middle of the convoy and increased the intensity of their fire. The enemy fire immobilized two vehicles in the convoy and forced the majority of friendly forces to dismount and return fire. Initial small arms fire targeted J.W.’s son in the rear vehicle. Enemy fire intensified as the terrorist force continued to press their advantage.

Knowing they probably wouldn’t make it out of this ambush alive, the soldiers continued to fight and protect each other. 

“Jeremiah and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Sgt. La David Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright all lost their lives attempting to save their brothers over there,” J.W. said. 

Jeremiah’s mother, Jo-Anne Johnson, soon got the news that no mother wants to hear. 

“J.W. came in and woke me up and told me and my heart just sank,” Jo-Anne Johnson said. “You always worry, but you are never prepared for that call. While you are living with the worry you are not thinking about it. The toughest part is not being there to protect them.”

Following the news of Jeremiah’s death, J.W. and Jo-Anne Johnson began to learn more about how Jeremiah moved quickly to prevent other deaths during the ambush. 

“He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor,” his father said.

The Johnsons first learned of the complete account of Jeremiah’s heroism when they received a copy of the narrative to accompany the award of The Bronze Star Medal for Valor to their son.

“Sgt. First Class Johnson’s truck surged forward to better support the vehicles caught in the kill zone,” reads the text of the letter. “He dismounted and charged into the kill zone, intending to discharge his antitank weapon at the advancing enemy vehicles. Unable to employ his weapon due to the proximity of friendly forces, Sgt. First Class Johnson disregarded personal safety and held his exposed position in what was now the heaviest engagement area in order to provide supporting fires to his vehicles mounted machine gun. When he saw that the gunner was running low on ammunition, Sgt. First Class Johnson exposed himself to withering enemy fire to shuttle ammunition to the gunner. When not conducting resupply for the gunner, he provided valuable fire support to the flanks of the gunner as the enemy attempted to maneuver on his position. Upon identifying an even greater enemy force equipped with mortars, motorcycles and vehicles with mounted machine guns maneuvering to the patrols flank, the Detachment Commander gave the order to withdraw to a more defensible position.

“Sgt. First Class Johnson insisted on remaining to provide covering fire as detachment members rallied the disoriented and scattered partner force, which had abandoned its vehicles and retreated to nearby bushes,” the text of the letter continues. “Disregarding his own safety, Sgt. First Class Johnson maneuvered to a position with clearer fields of fire on the enemy near staff sergeants Wright and Black in order to better protect the rest of the patrol’s movement out of the kill zone.”

Erwin Record Photo by Richard Rourk • J.W. Johnson stands with a jar of shell casings sand from Niger.

The letter’s conclusion states that, “His decision to move forward to better engage the enemy placed him on the most hotly contested ground of the engagement. Sgt. First Class Johnson’s and Staff Sergeants Wright and Black’s determined stand drew the brunt of the enemy’s attack. Once the rest of the patrol had reached a position of relative safety, this small element began their own effort to extract themselves from the kill zone. Even though he was subjected to heavy incoming fire as he stalked beside the truck, Sgt. First Class Johnson continued to effectively engage targets advancing on the patrol.”

J.W. explained that Jeremiah went into the line of fire to protect and save his brothers. 

“I thought that the Marines were a strong brotherhood, but I have never seen a bond as strong as Jeremiah and his company had,” J.W. Johnson said. “After the two year investigation, it became clear that the four men that lost their lives in their 11-man squad as they fought against over a hundred VEOs for over an hour until French air forces came in to save the remaining soldiers.

“We don’t hold any animosity towards anyone,” he added. “It was just unfortunate.”

J.W. explained that he cannot even blame the individuals who opened fire on his son.

“I can’t blame the person who shot Jeremiah,” he said. “I blame the ideology behind it. I blame the ideology of terrorism. It was hard for the survivors to come home to face us. We are actually really good friends with those guys. I know they are living with a lot.”

J.W. and Jo-Anne Johnson now reside in Erwin and enjoy being a part of the their new home town. 

“This is a great community with a long history of serving,” J.W. said. “We do feel at home here.”

Contributed Photo • Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Johnson stands with his father after joining the U.S. Army.