It is late, after midnight in Iraq, and Major Dan Johnston, MD, Army brigade flight surgeon stationed at Camp Taji, is talking about his work and his hopes for the future. As Dan segues into a discussion of his faith, the mood shifts. Quietly, haltingly, a story unfolds.
There was an older brother who died suddenly as an infant. He was to be the last child, but Dan’s parents decided to try again—and Dan was born. He has known this story for as long as he can remember. “It’s a strange thing. I feel close to him somehow. It’s almost as if he gave me a gift.” It is not, he hastens to say, that God took his brother so that Dan might live. Yet he has this feeling, an awareness that life is truly a gift. And because it is a gift, he always knew his life must serve a greater purpose.
Spend just a few minutes with Dan and you’re struck with his intensity and passion, even at this hour. Whether he’s talking about the details of his responsibilities in Iraq, his research into the use of nutrition to help soldiers deal with the stress of living and working in a war zone, or the joy he finds when flying, here is a man determined to cram as much living as he can into every moment.
As a result, at just 31 years old, Dan has tallied an impressive list of achievements. He was stationed in Washington, D.C., and served as a U.S. Pentagon physician and lead flight surgeon for some of the military’s highest leaders, and he represented the Army several times a week as a social aide, first to President Bush and then to President Obama. He also worked for NASA, researching nutritional supplements. Although he had what some considered a plum assignment, when he was offered the opportunity to serve with the Army Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, he eagerly accepted the position.
But the heart of this man is a doctor who sees the hand of God in the design of the human body and a patriot who tears up when he hears the national anthem. The dog tag he wears around his neck (given to him by an army chaplain) sums up his commitments best: On one side it is inscribed with Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” On the flip side is the American flag, to which Dan gave his oath of office the day he enlisted.
“I felt I hadn’t rounded out my service to my country,” he says. “I hadn’t deployed in a war zone. Now I have the awesome opportunity to put my passion for prevention, health, wellness and performance into practice to benefit my soldiers.”
A Dream Transformed
Faith has been central to Dan’s life since he was a boy. He was raised in a Christian home with a mother, Jolly, whom he lovingly describes as “the spiritual center of our family,” and a father, Pete, who worked hard but always made time for his family. “My parents demonstrated what it meant to love Christ with all your heart and mind,” said Dan. “I went to private Christian school and, in sixth grade, made a commitment to Jesus Christ in front of my church.”
As the only boy in a family with three older sisters, Jocelyn, Suzie and Sonjia, Dan enjoyed quality time with his father, a former Air National Guard aviation mechanic and enthusiastic private pilot. Dan could barely see over the controls of the small private plane when he made his first flight with Dad over their hometown of Paso Robles, a small agricultural town in central California, home to a World War II-era airfield. From that day on, the two shared a special love for soaring above the clouds. Everything about flying fascinated Dan, so it’s not surprising that his dream was to become a pilot. And not just any pilot—a Top Gun who would serve his country with honor.
“The military really intrigued me as a little kid, especially military test pilots like Chuck Yeager. I was always reading about them, admiring their passion for what they do and their combination of intelligence and bravery,” Dan says.
His plan was to follow in the footsteps of his heroes and attend the Air Force Academy. He earned a private pilot’s license in his teens and was well on his way when problems with his eyesight developed,
ending the dream. It was a bitter disappointment, and he felt the loss deeply. A few years later on a fishing trip to rural Mexico with his dad, God led him to medicine.
“Dad had known some of the local people for years, and he was close with them. They were getting serious diseases at young ages, and they weren’t aware of how to take care of themselves. I could see that meeting people’s needs is really powerful. I wanted to be the guy that helped.”
Dan believes God knew better where his talents would be most useful, leading him first to medicine and then to the military career he had dreamed of. “I learned about the opportunity to serve as a doctor right after being accepted to medical school. I took the oath of office to become an officer in the United States Army under the flagpole at my hometown airport with my Dad watching. ‘I do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic … .’ It still inspires me.”
Boots on the Ground and in the Air
Today serving in Iraq, Dan is the guy that helps. His days start early and end well after midnight, filled with rounds of meetings—with the commander, his team of doctors and assistants, and his Iraqi counterparts. He is responsible for the mental and physical health of 2,600 men and women, members of the Army Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, and that’s just a start. His medical team provides support, care and training to Iraqis as well.
Though he enjoys the fact his responsibilities require him to serve as a flight crew member several times a month, his calling is medicine. “The doctor-patient relationship is very special. When you meet someone’s medical needs, you touch their life. I think you find peace when you know you’re in God’s will and serving his people.”
Blessed with boundless energy and an enthusiasm for his work—he lights up when he talks about the opportunity to serve his country as a doctor—he’s never too busy to make time for what he calls his “office rounds.” In desert fatigues, with the gun that even a doctor must carry in a combat zone strapped to his side, Dan sets out across the sprawling airbase (located about 12 miles from Baghdad on the site of one of Saddam Hussein’s old airfields) to take the pulse of his unit. He stops in barracks, offices, the gym, airplane hangers and maintenance shops.
“At Camp Taji, I see my patients everywhere,” Dan says. “I’ll walk around stopping to talk, checking in, getting to know people, letting them know I’ve got their back. It promotes a level of confidence, especially with pilots.” His love of aviation—he’s still an avid private pilot—gives him an edge. He “gets” these tough-talking pilots. “We hold the keys to their careers, so they can be quite skeptical. To be a really good flight surgeon, you need to be out with them, helping to keep them flying.”
It’s hard to overstate the stress American soldiers are facing. “Just being in a combat zone keeps stress levels high,” Dan says. “Many have been deployed numerous times, separated from loved ones.”
He combines his “feet on the ground” approach with the latest medical technology and cutting-edge techniques. An expert in aerospace medicine and nutrition—he consults with NASA on nutritional formulations for astronauts and serves on a national military task force on the impact of nutrition on combat readiness—Dan is pioneering a resiliency campus at Taji. It’s the first of its kind in a combat zone. “Health is so much more than the absence of disease. We want to promote resilience rather than waiting until they develop emotional or physical challenges.”
His research on the use of omega-3 EPA/DHA fish oil, chia seeds, antioxidants and coenzyme Q10 has convinced him that high-quality supplements provide a kind of nutritional armor that protects the mind and body, improving readiness and resilience in combat settings. Dan recognizes that these nutrients can benefit all people, soldiers and civilians alike, from illness and premature aging. In his free time, prior to being deployed, he developed a Web site called NutritionalArmor.com, to offer education and information compiled from a team of experts from a variety of fields. The site provides the best, most up-to-date consumer information about supplements to benefit health and performance. “Most omega-3 supplements fail to deliver the potency and purity of the right EPA/DHA omega-3s,” says Dan. “I am excited to help educate people about their key roles in the body and what to look for when purchasing.”
The Greater Good
Dan is most animated when talking about his passion for physical, mental and emotional wellness—the point where his faith and his work intersect. As he studied the body in medical school, he felt he was being given a glimpse into the mind of God, just as he had when he studied the stars in preparation for his pilot’s license. “I was so in awe of the incredible architecture of the human body. It’s like looking into a beautiful cathedral with pipe organs, stained-glass windows, a structure of marble. How can you say it formed itself?”
It was during these years that Dan came to understand the Bible verse that has become his inspiration. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own … ” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
With Dan, any conversation inevitably turns to what people can do to stay healthy, the impact of taking the right supplements, the benefits of exercise, new techniques like biofeedback and the importance of a strong spiritual life. This is his mission, the reason he believes God led him to become a doctor instead of a pilot, the greater purpose he was born to serve. Deep in his soul, Dan believes his life is a gift he must use to serve God and his fellow man. And in this way, he can also honor the brother he never knew.
It’s difficult for those of us at home to comprehend the intricacies of what it’s like to serve in a war zone—the complicated psychology of maintaining emotional distance so one can continue to do the job while not shutting down completely.
Of all the challenges, perhaps none is more poignant than being faced with the broken body of an injured child, war’s most innocent victim. If asked, Dan will tell the bare bones of these stories but, like other soldiers, he doesn’t share his own reactions easily.
“When you’re living here, you realize the threat that these terrorist groups represent to their very own people. Every week people are dying here, not Americans, Iraqis.” There is a somber tone of sadness as he begins to relate these stories.
“An 11-year-old boy was riding in a car with his father, an Iraqi police officer who was trying to create a more stable country. An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, killing the father and severely maiming the son. He was taken to a military hospital for treatment.” Clearly moved, Dan hesitates a moment before telling another story. “In the North, a young girl was severely burned over her face and neck. It’s taken many operations, but we’ll be able to rehabilitate her.”
As a brigade flight surgeon, Dan’s role brings him into frequent contact with Iraqi doctors. They are well-trained and capable, he says, but they lack infrastructure and experience operating in a war zone. “We try to encourage Iraqis to use their own medical facilities, but they simply show up at our hospitals with their young in their arms, maimed and bleeding. They trust the Americans for care,” he says. “We don’t turn them away. Parents will plead with us to take their children back to the U.S., where they know they’ll get excellent care and have a chance at a better life. We don’t do that. But it presents emotional challenges when you see the young being targeted.”
It is not all heartbreak. There is joy as well. “Recently we held a party for Iraqi children. We had special foods, gifts and games. It helps to remind us all of peaceful times,” says Dan.
The assistance American soldiers provide Iraqi kids has an added benefit. “We’re finding that as we help the Iraqis take care of their own people and assist with infrastructure, there’s an increase in the quality of intelligence we get on the military side. You have to win the hearts and minds of people, and sometimes you do that by meeting physical and medical needs more than anything else.”
Dan hopes the people at home understand that the United States is making a difference in Iraq. “Producing a stable democracy can take a long time. Recently, they had their second democratic election here.
We made sure that process went smoothly. We helped stop a lot of threats so the ballots could be counted. At the end of the day we can save lives.”
Helping the Wounded Back Home
More than 25,000 American soldiers have been wounded in service to our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of Dr. Dan Johnston’s proudest accomplishments is helping launch Challenge America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded warriors and their families return to living a “new normal” life by putting them in touch with local resources to help them learn new skills, find jobs and buy homes. “Challenge America picks up where the military leaves off, helping them rebuild their lives, offering a whole other level of practical and emotional support,” Dan says.
It is the brainchild of Houston Cowan, founder of the Aspen Challenge, a world-renowned nonprofit, providing year-round recreational, competitive and cultural programs to anyone with a disability, with special programs for injured military. Cowan and his staff began to see a growing need as young men and women with severely debilitating injuries, amputations and traumatic brain injuries poured into the program. The lack of coordination of resources and information between programs across the country makes it difficult for these wounded veterans and their families to locate the services they need to make a successful transition to their “new normal” lives. Challenge America makes this information available through a user-friendly Web-based initiative.
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