Serving her country: Lt. Col. Amy Johnson recalls service

Lt. Col. Amy Johnson was in a different kind of battle.

She wasn’t on a battlefield under heavy artillery fire, but the enemy was sinister.

Johnson was overseeing military personnel on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A longtime Fremonter, Johnson is the medical administrative officer in the Nebraska Air National Guard (NEANG) 155th Air Refueling Wing. She manages the base clinic, which provides immunizations for travel, medical clearance for deployments and prepares for drill weekends.

Within weeks of the COVID outbreak in March 2020, NEANG had activated more than 50% of the medical part-time drill guardsman to support state health departments with public testing.

It was the start of a long battle and part of a busy military career that’s taken Johnson from Japan to the Czech Republic, the latter of which occurred during the pandemic.

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While many local residents may not have witnessed Johnson’s behind-the-scenes oversight, they benefited from it.

A 1989 Fremont High School graduate, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1992. She was a medic, first stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, then Yokota Air Base in Japan, working in labor and delivery, her favorite job.

She left active duty with the Air Force, earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Bellevue University and later a master’s degree in public health from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Johnson was still in graduate school when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and she joined NEANG.

“I felt compelled,” Johnson said about joining. “I’m very patriotic and I thought if I could at least do something part time that I would.”

Johnson’s patriotism stems from her upbringing and her mother, Micki. Her mom’s husband, Lane Johnson, who served in the U.S. Army infantry, was shot and killed on Veterans Day in 1969 in Vietnam. He was the love of her mom’s life.

“It affects her every Veterans Day,” Amy Johnson said. “It affects me. It’s made me more patriotic.”

Johnson was commissioned as a public health officer in 2005.

“We’re considered enablers,” Johnson said. “What we do enables people to go on missions. We support the missions.”

Johnson’s work included making sure female airmen were healthy during pregnancy and inspecting dining facilities.

The unit’s KC135 tankers refuel other planes in the air and many people deploy for different federal missions and domestic operations. So Johnson made sure airmen were healthy and received necessary medicine before they went on missions.

In 2006, Johnson was a 2nd lieutenant when she began working for NEANG fulltime as medical plans officer for a team trained to respond to natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, or terrorist attacks, which could involve chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high yield explosives.

They set up a medical tent outside the 2008 Democratic National Convention. There, she met future U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

Biden jumped out of a vehicle to thank them.

“It was really cool to be there when history was being made,” Johnson said. “It was the first African American person (Barak Obama) to accept a bid for a presidential election.”

Johnson and others watched the event live outside Mile High Stadium in Denver.

“It was a really neat mission for a brand new lieutenant,” Johnson said.

In 2010, Johnson transferred to the 72nd Civil Support Team, a Weapons of Mass Destruction response team, consisting of Air and Army National Guard members. Then a captain, she served in medical plans operations.

The work involved making certain there were no explosives or anything else, chemical or biological, that could endanger people attending a major event like one at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium, which seats 90,000.

“We worked every Husker game,” Johnson said.

The team also worked at the College World Series and Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha. Team members were called to help support other states hosting Super Bowls as well.

“I probably got more experience in my military career on the CST than any other position I’ve done, because of the amount of real world experience gained,” she said.

The team was called to Fairbury when the hospital was evacuated due to a gas that was making people ill.

“We got called in to figure out what was going on,” Johnson said.

The team of medical, chemical and decontamination experts discovered someone had accidentally mixed two cleaning chemicals, which shouldn’t have been mixed. They determined how to clean it up and Fairbury residents were grateful.

It was cool, Johnson said, except she missed the birthday party for her then-7-year-old son, Quinlan, who was upset.

Therein lies the hardest part of her job – the number of birthdays and her son’s sporting events she’s missed.

She resigned her active duty orders from the National Guard in 2013.

“I was tired of missing everything,” she said.

Johnson worked at Omaha’s Allegiant Creighton Health (now CHI) as administrator for Quick Cares and Urgent Cares, then later was office administrator for Fremont Drs. Thomas McKnight and Thomas Wolf at Prairie Fields Family Medicine.

In 2018, she returned to active duty for the NEANG, where she’s remained since.

NEANG provided guardsmen to help with COVID testing from April through August in 2020. In her enabler role, Johnson made sure guardsmen were healthy enough to assist.

“For me, it was chaotic to have so many people out on orders and there’s the accountability that goes with that,” she said.

In October 2020, Johnson was sent to the Czech Republic which has a partnership with the Nebraska National Guard. She and people from the Texas National Guard met with Czech military and medical leaders. The goal was to build relationships between U.S. and Czech doctors and nurses, who could share ideas about best ways to treat patients.

Johnson was impressed with a 500-bed, makeshift hospital in a Czech sports facility to care for more patients as hospitals were hitting capacity. She saw mobile X-ray and ventilators and an ability to do surgery.

She returned to the U.S.

“In January 2021, we started to activate the medical folks in NEANG to go out and start assisting public health departments in vaccinating the civilian population,” she said. “It was very busy. We had people on orders helping with vaccinations through May 2021.”

Other work continues.

“We’re still vaccinating members of the National Guard for normal operations, in addition to continuing to track positive COVID (cases),” she said.

Johnson enjoys the people with whom she works.

“They’re heroes in their civilian jobs, providing health care on a daily basis and giving up their weekends to come provide medical care for the military,” she said.

Johnson found it poignant when National Guard members and their dependents were so grateful to be vaccinated, when it wasn’t so easy to receive a vaccination. Between February and May 2021, Johnson and her fulltime staff of five provided 3,340 vaccinations for members and dependents.

Medical NEANG members more recently trained in the ICU, emergency department and medical surgical ward in the U.S. Naval hospital in Okinawa, Japan.

“We got amazing training, but got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see things like Hacksaw Ridge and snorkel in the East China Sea,” she said.

Eventually, Johnson would like to take command of the 155th medical group. Thus far, she’s been in the military for 22 total years, with 15 years of active duty. She’s recently become involved in American Legion Post 20 and Veterans of Foreign Wars 854.

If she had to do it again, Johnson still would join the military.

“I’m a helper,” she said. “I feel compelled to serve and help other people.”

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