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From self-hate to self-love: An Army veteran’s journey of healing

Portland District
Published Nov. 10, 2020
Left: Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan, from 2004 to 2005. Right: Johnson in November 2019 at the district's headquarters in downtown Portland.

Left: Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan, from 2004 to 2005. Right: Johnson in November 2019 at the district's headquarters in downtown Portland.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during Army Basic Combat Training in 1997.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during Army Basic Combat Training in 1997.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, during his first deployment to Afghanistan -- a yearlong tour from 2004 to 2005.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, in 2010 with his two sons, Ebin (far left), currently 12, and Ethan (far right), currently 16.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, in 2010 with his two sons, Ebin (far left), currently 12, and Ethan (far right), currently 16.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, shows the tattoo sleeve on his left arm -- a tribute to the various spirit animal guides that came to Johnson during Shamanic animal journeying meditations.

Anthony Johnson, technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District, shows the tattoo sleeve on his left arm -- a tribute to the various spirit animal guides that came to Johnson during Shamanic animal journeying meditations.

Today, his Army service now 13 years behind him, Anthony Johnson serves as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District.

Today, his Army service now 13 years behind him, Anthony Johnson serves as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District.

Today, his Army service now 13 years behind him, Anthony Johnson serves as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District.

Today, his Army service now 13 years behind him, Anthony Johnson serves as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland District.

An artist and friend of Johnson's, Corinne Dermond, drew this picture of Johnson. According to Johnson, it sums up his 10-year journey of healing. "It boils down to loving myself more," he said.
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An artist and friend of Johnson's, Corinne Dermond, drew this picture of Johnson. According to Johnson, it sums up his 10-year journey of healing. "It boils down to loving myself more," he said.

Whatever else Anthony Johnson could say about their military service, it at least gave them a friend who cared enough to hide Johnson’s pistol away from them at a time when they might have used it to end their own life.

It may very well be the reason the Army veteran is still here today.

Johnson was grateful. But in many ways the person with suicidal thoughts swimming in their head bore a sharp contrast to the one who had joined the Oregon National Guard with enthusiasm a decade prior. The one who exemplified the Army’s values. The one who saw nothing but a long and rewarding career stretched out before them—a place where they could do good things.

That was before Afghanistan.

A means to an end
Johnson was a peaceful person. They still are. They didn’t join the Army to go to war. They did it to escape poverty.

It was 1997. The 19-year-old was studying music at Clackamas Community College.

“And then I ran out of money,” said Johnson, who today works as a technical writer-editor (engineering) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District.

It just so happened that Johnson also needed a little discipline. And they had a deep family history of military service. Their dad had served in Vietnam. Their uncle was still in the National Guard. Johnson was talking to that uncle one evening when they decided to put their future in the hands of the Army.

“He was like, ‘So, when are you joining the National Guard?’” Johnson said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing that tomorrow. So the next day I went in.”

Despite making the choice largely out of necessity, Johnson was excited.

“I felt like I was joining something larger than myself where I could do good work,” they said.

Johnson scored a 93 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple choice test the military uses to determine a person’s qualification for enlistment. With those marks, they could have virtually any job they wanted.

They settled on one of the only two jobs that offered a signing bonus: unit supply specialist. Then they were off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.

They would spend the next several years working at a manufacturing plant while learning the Army supply world on drill weekends and during training exercises.

In 2002, Johnson volunteered for a six-month deployment to Egypt. They learned a lot. And they proved a lot as a supply specialist, at one point stepping up to fill in for a superior. They mostly enjoyed the experience.

They still have bottles of perfume and trinkets they took home with them.

Upon their return, Johnson, feeling confident and eager for advancement, remained on active duty and requested professional development training. They wanted to become a warrant officer and property book officer—a position that oversees a unit’s supply management and accounts for property.

“I knew my stuff,” Johnson said. “I knew where to go to find the answer.”

Their unit sent them to Fort Hood, Texas, for training that would prepare them to be a sergeant—a frontline leader. Johnson excelled.

“I think at that time I felt pretty good about myself,” they recalled.

The feeling wouldn’t last.

Winning hearts and minds
In the meantime, Johnson reconnected with an old high school friend, Brenda, and in early 2004, the couple welcomed a child into the world: Ethan. But Johnson had also committed to a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.

Two months later, Johnson and Brenda married. Two more months and Johnson was boarding a plane.

Before they left, Johnson sat down and recorded video messages for their son and other members of their family—a last goodbye in case they didn’t make it home.

“That was tough. But you had to prepare,” said Johnson. “I was going to war. I didn’t know what was going to happen over there.”

In Afghanistan, Johnson joined a 16-person team as an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army. Just like in the beginning, they set out to do good.

“My mission was to win hearts and minds,” they said.

During their first weeks in Afghanistan, while outside their forward operating base to purchase cell phones, Johnson’s convoy stopped to help at the scene of a car accident. One man lay on the ground unconscious. Johnson pulled security and kept people away.

Johnson and their team had been cautioned to look out for bicycles wrapped with wires—a sign of an improvised explosive device. Easier said than done.

“You’d see those all over the place,” Johnson said.

Luckily, nothing bad happened. Quite the opposite. The team revived the man, and an ambulance took him away.

“That felt good. We provided this service. That was neat,” Johnson said before a long pause.

The Afghan millionaire
In Afghanistan, Johnson led classes for Afghan army supply specialists and taught them to sustain a troop force in the field. They felt like they were making a difference.

They spent a couple of months in Qalat, a city in the country’s southern Zabul Province. Rockets descended into the encampment regularly—a sort of protest, Johnson figures, to a new Afghan base going up in the immediate area. But even when Johnson and others responded to an attack on a provincial reconstruction team, a type of civilian-military unit, Johnson never fired their weapon.

“I wasn’t there to kill people,” they said.

Before long, leadership charged Johnson with a new mission: travelling around the country by helicopter to pay Afghan soldiers who were working with U.S. special forces troops. So Johnson walked into a contracting office in Kandahar and accepted a black backpack full of money—more than 10 million afghani, the equivalent of about $250,000 U.S. dollars at the time.

“I had over a quarter-million dollars in my backpack,” Johnson recalled.

Every eight days, Johnson travelled to a different forward operating base. Once they had finished their payroll mission, units used Johnson as an extra body. They would pull security. They would man radios.

Then, one night, an Afghan soldier motioned Johnson to step inside a cook shed with him and two other men. Verbal urging turned physical. The soldier grabbed Johnson. Johnson had to wrestle the man to get away.

“We’re in Kandahar. That’s Taliban country,” Johnson said. “Who knows what would have happened had I entered that cook shack. Because everyone wanted to be my friend. I was carrying a ton of cash. That was a really scary moment.

"That got packed away with all the other traumas.”

Later, an Army officer on Johnson’s team tried to task Johnson with work that was outside their scope of responsibility. As punishment for Johnson’s refusal to do the work, the officer tried to cancel Johnson’s mid-tour leave.

Little by little, Johnson’s experiences began to chip away at them.

“I took that home”
One of Johnson’s most painful memories stems from the death of a special forces soldier during their first deployment. Johnson attended the memorial. They lined up with others to stand before a pair of boots, a rifle and a helmet—a battlefield cross to honor a slain troop—and say their thanks.

“Seeing how much that human meant to his commander and watching him tear up over his teammate—his guy,” said Johnson. “I took that home. A lot of that survivor’s guilt comes into play.”

Johnson’s mission was to learn their role in Afghanistan, go back home to their unit in Oregon, train members of their brigade, and then return to Afghanistan with them. So in 2006, they deployed once again. Another team. Another mission. Another year.

This time, Johnson returned to Afghanistan with new baggage. During pre-deployment training in Mississippi, Johnson’s brother informed them that their wife, Brenda, had been hanging out in bars with other men every weekend.

“That practically drove me insane,” Johnson said. “I was constantly trying to call home. It just kept hitting in my head over and over and over again.

“There was this palpable fear. Death was on the other side of those Hesco barriers, and I didn’t know if I was gonna die—if this next shot out the gate was gonna be my last one.”

Meanwhile, Johnson dealt with a separate struggle: A Navy officer was threatening to demote them for responding to a question from a distance instead of reporting to the officer’s desk at attention.

Ensnared in multiple mental battles, Johnson finally snapped. The emotions raging inside them boiled over. Trauma from their childhood resurfaced.

Then the darkest possible thought swept over them.

“The thought that was going through my head was, ‘Wouldn’t my family be better off without me?’ Or ‘Your family would be better off without you. Hey look, you have this pistol. Look, you have this ammunition. Just end it,’” Johnson said. “That voice inside my head said, ‘Don’t be a pussy. Pull the trigger.’”

Johnson requested a compassionate reassignment—basically, a plea to go home early and sort out their affairs. Leadership denied it.

“That second tour was bad,” Johnson said.

The diminished person
Johnson returned from their second Afghanistan tour in mid-2007.

“I took off my uniform, and I didn’t put it back on,” they said. “I let my beard grow. I called my unit every month when it was time for drill and said, ‘I won’t be able to make it. I’m with my family.’

“I was diminished after my experience at war.”

Johnson was eventually discharged from the Army, but the trauma lingered.

“I wanted to be in 20 years,” they said. “Already had 10 years in. I was halfway there. I had this idea that I was gonna have this long career.”

They stayed on at the manufacturing plant and made it through the days with prescription medication and energy drinks.

One year after their return from Afghanistan, Johnson took a health assessment survey administered by the Army. Finally, they were honest. They had had suicidal and homicidal thoughts. At the same time, their relationship with Brenda was dissolving.

A journey to heal
The thing that set Johnson on a 10-year path to recovery started out like a final blow. Brenda was hanging out at the neighbors’ house. Johnson couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was the hypervigilance from a combat deployment, Johnson thought, but they sensed something bad.

When Brenda came home, Johnson asked her to leave. She raised her fists at them and, out of instinct, Johnson grabbed her wrists. The two wrestled. Brenda left. Fifteen minutes later, Johnson had calmed down. But the police had shown up. They took Johnson to jail.

It was Johnson’s first arrest, but Johnson was subject to mandatory counseling. That was when they found the C.A.D.R.E. Program, a counseling program run by a fellow veteran named Julie Kingsland.

Through the program, Johnson completed a year’s worth of "feeling and behavioral journals," which taught them to use words and non-violent communication to talk about their feelings.

“Julie has said that I’m one of her successes,” Johnson said.

Johnson also reached out to the Returning Veterans Project and spent a year seeing a counselor who specialized in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy to work through their traumas.

They started going back to school.

Then, in 2010, while on a nighttime bike ride event in Portland with friends from work, Johnson met Lacye Kebschull-Fulmer, a professional hula hoop dance instructor. Kebschull-Fulmer was dancing on top of a bus in a parking lot. Johnson was drawn to it.

“I wanted to move like that,” they said. Days later, they typed out an email to Kebschull-Fulmer.

“It was like, ‘I just got back from deployment. I’m trying to find myself through joyful stuff, and this was something that really touched me,’” Kebschull-Fulmer recalled.

Johnson started showing up at her classes.

“The hula hoop was really how I started developing a compassionate mindset for myself,” they said. “It helped quiet the critic inside. I knew when I was inside the hoop, I was safe. I hadn’t felt safe since I was five.”

Over the years, Johnson came back to life.

Kebschull-Fulmer had taught Johnson and the rest of her class a life-saving metaphor: Dropping the hula hoop wasn’t something to be upset about.

“It’s something to be celebrated because you’re a beginner, and you’re moving forward and also learning,” she explained.

So it was with life. So it was with failures and struggles.

After 10 years, she has come to know Johnson as a sweet and gentle person.

“I think that part of him had gotten buried a little bit,” she said. “And so it was that part of him that he was kind of resurrecting.”

She watched Johnson find community. She watched them blossom.

Once, Kebschull-Fulmer said, Johnson brought their mom to a class. Afterward, Johnson’s mom cupped Kebschull-Fulmer’s face and kissed her on the cheek with an earnest message: “Thank you so much for what you’ve done for my son.”

Johnson also attended Shamanic animal journeying sessions with a local Reiki master in Portland named Michelle Hawk. The practice, done while meditating to drum beats, encourages people to get in touch with spirit animal guides that are believed to help one heal.

Today, Johnson has their animal guides tattooed along their left arm: a red-tailed hawk, a bear, a tiger, and an owl.

Through all the different classes, therapies and communities that have helped Johnson along their journey of healing, one underlying need has remained constant for them: learning to love oneself again. 

“What I was experiencing was negative self-talk. I was experiencing a lot of self-hate,” they said. “I wasn’t loving myself. I wasn’t caring about myself. I was telling myself all these terrible things. I realized that I needed to build that compassionate mindset for myself.”

Today, they have their master’s degree in business administration. They have a job they’re grateful for. They have community. They have friends.

“I’m grateful and a bit proud of where I am today,” Johnson said