TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. — On a late summer Saturday, a procession of fire engines, motorcycles and squad cars escorted a van down Main Street, greeted by clusters of flag-waving folks. By the time the caravan had arrived at the American Legion hall, a crowd had gathered; lines of police, firefighters and the military parted to form a path of honor.
Krista Johnston stepped from the van — an impossibly young widow. She wore her husband’s favorite blue-and-pink Hawaiian shirt; it seemed too big even over her pregnant belly.
Sgt. James Johnston, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, had been killed along with a Green Beret on June 25 in Uruzgan Province in south-central Afghanistan. Two months later, his adopted hometown had come together over a holiday weekend to pay tribute, and to say goodbye.
In fact, Johnston hadn’t lived here long. But he’d quickly adopted the rituals and rhythms of small-town life. He was No. 55, a tenacious lineman for the Trumansburg Blue Raiders, taking the field under the Friday night lights. He was the gung-ho volunteer firefighter. He was JJ, Jamie or Texas (a nickname he’d acquired because he constantly boasted about his roots).
He also was the loyal friend, the comic relief, the Hawaiian shirt aficionado, the blisteringly honest high school sweetheart-turned-husband of Krista, whose own father was so fond of him he called him the “son I never had.”
And now, he was Trumansburg’s contribution to the list of some 2,300 American dead in the war in Afghanistan.
Those deaths have been easy to overlook. Though the recent cancellation of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban has attracted headlines, Afghanistan’s war has long been relegated to news briefs. It’s the nation’s longest war — the youngest enlistees weren’t even born 18 years ago when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and the hunt began for Osama bin Laden. But the bloodshed has seemed far distant, unless it claimed a son, a friend, a lover.
With its celebration of James Gregory Johnston, the war came home to this hamlet in upstate New York.
At the legion hall, 24-year-old Krista watched the time-honored military traditions: the 21-gun salute, the playing of taps and the presentation of a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.
The next day, the hall had been transformed for a baby shower with towering piles of gifts amid pink and blue balloons, as Krista entered wearing a Hawaiian floral dress with a white-and-gold “mother-to-be” ribbon tied around her midsection.
Krista had learned she was pregnant the day before her husband was deployed. It was an especially emotional moment, she says, because they’d been trying to start a family for two years and she’d miscarried recently. But how to deliver the news? Jamie loved gifts, so she printed a message on a piece of paper, framed it, put it in a box and handed it to him that night.
Jamie opened the box, stared at the message, then turned around with tears rolling down his face. “It was the first time I’d see him cry in the seven years we’d been together,” she recalls. She cried, too. The next morning, he headed to war.
Nine weeks later, Krista told Jamie they’d be having a girl.
He started pondering post-military life. He talked with his mother about returning to Galveston, Texas, to join her charter fishing operation, even though he wasn’t crazy about fishing. He called his father-in-law to discuss possible business ventures.
On June 25th, Krista and Jamie did what they’d done since he arrived in Afghanistan. He messaged her that he’d be going on an operation. “Be safe. I love you,” she’d responded, and she awaited word that he had returned safely.
This time, there was silence.
Johnston and Master Sgt. Micheal Riley, a Green Beret, were killed in combat; the military said they died from injuries sustained in small arms fire, but did not elaborate.
Two-and-a-half months later, on the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Johnston’s unit returned from Afghanistan.
Krista and Jamie’s father, Richard, were among those waiting at Fort Hood. Six months earlier, she’d said goodbye to her husband at that same spot.
Amid the reunions, there was a surprise for Krista — a tribute to her husband, bold and colorful, befitting his personality.
As James Johnston’s buddies stepped off the bus, each man wore a Hawaiian shirt.
After Jamie’s death, Krista decided to name their daughter after him. Friends and family will assemble a book of stories and photos that will help her learn about the man she’ll never meet. Krista will have plenty to say, too.
“She’ll know he was my best friend,” she says, and “the love of my life.”
Krista says she’ll also be guided by her husband’s words after a friend, also an explosive specialist, was killed last year in Afghanistan. He vowed then to focus on his buddy’s life, not his death.
Jamie, she says, “would want us to remember that he lived a happy, fun-loving life.”
Krista will raise Jamie Avery Grace Johnston in Texas and introduce her to their menagerie that includes two dogs and three mini pigs.
She hopes their baby girl will resemble her father. “I would love to see his dark hair, freckles and dark brown eyes,” she says. She’s sure Jamie will inherit his personality, too.
“I know that she’s going to be sarcastic and I know she’s going to stand up for herself,” she says, “and she’s going to be just as strong as her father.”