BATH — As a four-star admiral, Gregory Johnson has a resume with impressive depth and many tales to tell from a much-accomplished career.
But one thing he particularly likes to discuss is the plight of the wounded warrior.
When he serves with his wife, Joy, as grand marshal of the Bath Heritage Days parade on Monday, July 4, he will be accompanied by veterans who have benefited from the Warrior Legacy Foundation’s Wounded Heroes Program of Maine.
Johnson is also affiliated with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, an organization that assists the physical and emotional rehabilitation of active-duty military personnel and disabled veterans through fly-fishing and fly-tying education and outings.
Johnson’s work combines two of his passions: fly fishing and shared sacrifice.
“I just don’t think that our nation’s very good at (shared sacrifice) any more, and I don’t think our political leadership asks nearly enough of the American people,” Johnson said.
“We can send these kids off to do our nation’s work and fight our wars, and the rest of us are asked to keep shopping and keep the economy going. But none of us can appreciate the … sacrifice these kids make, (and) their families make,” he said, as well as the physical, mental and spiritual challenges they will face the rest of their lives.
Johnson pointed to drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness as some of those maladies “we just sort of try to put that under the carpet.”
He said he hopes to help the veterans affiliated with Project Healing Waters and to raise money for its programs.
“To (help) them get balance in their life, get perspective in their life, it’s just a wonderful program,” he said. “… Watching a kid who’s got one arm, and he’s figured out how to tie a fly on with one hand, and using his feet, and they can tie a fly on faster than I can.”
Pam Payeur, program director of the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine, noted that “the majority of people out there have no idea that there’s a transitional gap between the time (troops) are discharged due to their injuries, which is the same point of time their pay from the military stops … and the time that their disability benefits kick in. There’s a very large gap there in time, at least usually six months to a year.”
Payeur added that “during that time, most of them cannot work and have no income. So we step in and take care of the daily financial things that we all have to deal with that they no longer can, (until) they’re back on their feet again.”
Those financial needs include rent, utilities, cell phone bills, heating oil, vehicle repairs and groceries.
Johnson, 64, retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004. He purchased his Harpswell home in 1992 during an assignment at the Pentagon, three years before his promotion to admiral.
His assignments have taken him all over the world, but his roots are in Maine: Westmanland, a town in Aroostook County. Following college graduation in 1968 he planned to attend law school, but the Vietnam War had reached its height, and he was told he would be drafted.
Johnson was given three months to find an officer program, and he chose Aviation Officer Candidate School, a flight training facility in Pensacola, Fla., which he said is “just like the movie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.'”
“Nothing very noble or elegant,” he reflected. “I didn’t go to the Naval Academy, I wasn’t (in Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps), I didn’t know anything about the military, I knew nothing about flying. But life is full of serendipity; and it takes twists and turns. … I had no idea that I would ever go down that road.”
Johnson said he planned to serve the minimum amount of time and return to law school, but clearly life had other plans.
He became a naval aviator, and his initial sea duty assignments through 1986 were in carrier-based squadrons. He advanced to executive officer and commanding officer, and from 1988 to 1990 he was deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing Six, and from 1994-1995 commander of Carrier Air Wing Three.
Among his many shore duty assignments were the Naval War College, from which he graduated with the highest distinction, and service in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as executive assistant to the chairman, Gen. Colin Powell.
His first flag assignment after making admiral was as director of operations, plans, and policy on the command staff of U.S. Atlantic Fleet Forces. Subsequent jobs included senior military assistant to then-Defense Sec. William Cohen, another Maine native.
Johnson took command in 2000 of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and Naval Striking and Support Forces in southern Europe. From 2001-2004 he served as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe in London, and of Allied Forces Southern Europe, in Naples, Italy.
He retired in 2004 after many decorations, and afterward founded Snow Ridge Associates, a provider of strategic advice and counsel. His many other involvements include Project Healing Waters.
Gregory Johnson of Harpswell, a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral, will serve with his wife as grand marshall in the Bath Heritage Days Parade on Monday, July 4.
Bath Heritage Days is July 1-4.