We offer bonus insight into the military life of 2022 ENX Magazine Difference Maker Chris Johnson.
The year was 2004. Chris Johnson had every right to be content in the life he’d carved out for himself. He was making a handsome living in sales with Konica Minolta and was just 31 years old. But Johnson had reached a point in his life where he wanted a challenge…and to be honest, he was a tad bored.
Roughly four years into his tour with Konica Minolta, Johnson broke the news to his manager that he was making a change, as in immediately. He was leaving the following week to join the Army.
“It was one of those things where I asked myself, ‘What else can I do with my life?’ I wanted to challenge my leadership skills,” Johnson admitted.
Perhaps the longtime recruitment slogan, “Be All You Can Be” resonated with Johnson, but after nearly 20 years and deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq—and experiences in numerous Middle Eastern countries—he’s attained more than self-actualization. The Army has provided Johnson insight into worlds far beyond his own, and perspectives that simply can’t be achieved through video segments on the evening news.
Afghanistan, in particular, proved an illuminating experience. He’s seen the Hindu Kush mountain range that stretches into Pakistan and Tajikistan. He’s trodden down the Silk Road, the trade route that connected China with the West, where merchants journeyed thousands of years ago. While the hunt for Osama bin Laden was a core objective, it brought Johnson face to face with a civilization that, in many ways, was segregated from many parts of the world.
Johnson most recently was assigned to the 16th Psychological Operations battalion. In a sense, it was not unlike marketing. He would travel to villages and meet the locals in an exercise akin to cold calling. He was part of a three-man team that supported various units, moving from town to town gathering intelligence, seeking support and taking the temperature of attitudes toward America.
“I would get to know people, find out who are the key players, and ask the locals if they would be willing to help us try to find the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden,” Johnson related. “It was an amazing experience because I got to meet local village elders who were living in these little areas. I tell my son, what you see on TV about what happens in war is about one percent of what goes on.”
He spent many hours having deep conversations with the Afghanis, drinking chai tea and swapping yarns. Many of the locals had never even seen what Americans would consider a big city; while Kabul has four million residents, Johnson interacted with locals who would need to travel for a day or two just to reach a town with a doctor. Many locals were poor and isolated from civilization.
Seeing American forces, at least during the outset, was a jarring experience for the locals as well. “We come in with our Humvees and helicopters, and we have on helmets and body armor…we must have looked like aliens landing in their backyards,” Johnson said.
“We’d ask them where we could find Al-Qaeda, and they didn’t have any idea of who that was,” Johnson added. “But it was an incredible experience. I learned to speak a lot of the local language. It was a different world.”
Iraq, on the other hand, was westernized and educated. Johnson noted the stark differences between them from a military standpoint. The Afghan soldiers were fiercely loyal and brave, willing to defend their homeland and didn’t back down. In Iraq, the fighters would blow something up before disappearing, he said.
His Army days are drawing to a close. Johnson’s logged 18 years, and since he’s on an indefinite contract, he can retire after 20 years. For now, it’s the reservist life of one weekend per month and two weeks per year. The post-pandemic period has been difficult, constantly causing plans and assignments to change. But after spending the equivalent of 39 months away from home, Johnson is ready to hand off the baton and focus on his family and professional life as the senior director of channel sales, Central region for Sharp.
“I drove this train; it was like a dream for me. But in two more years, it’s going to be someone else’s job,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”