Honor your hero with thoughts, memories, images and stories.
By ED KEMMICK
Of The Gazette Staff
Trevor Johnson liked to do things his own way.
At 17, when he signed a pledge to join the Marines, he arranged it so that he didn't have to start boot camp until the end of summer after high school graduation, so he could play one more full season of Legion baseball in Colstrip.
And when he reenlisted in 2007, he didn't want a formal, full-dress swearing-in. Instead, he and his lieutenant, both clad in cut-offs and Hawaiian shirts, conducted the ceremony on the roof of a barracks at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"It was his way of saying, "˜This is how you're going to get me,' " his father, Tom Johnson, said. "He was a prankster. He was a little bit of a renegade."
He was also a bright, athletic, handsome young man nicknamed "Hollywood" by his fellow Marines. He was a ranch kid through and through, at home on a horse and at ease with a gun, and he wanted to serve his country from an early age.
He served for a year in Southeast Asia, based in Japan, and later fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He began his second deployment to Afghanistan in November and he was killed on Tuesday, at the age of 23, by a roadside bomb.
"They had to do an identification on dental records. There was nothing left of him," his mother, Colleen Johnson, said.
The Johnsons spoke of their son's life and death Thursday afternoon at their ranch house 25 miles southeast of Forsyth on Rosebud Creek Road. Out front, at half-mast and snapping in a stiff breeze on the gray, snow-flecked prairie, were an American flag, a Montana flag and a Marine Corps flag, each on its own pole.
Getting the news
Colleen was home alone Tuesday morning when two staff sergeants from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves in Billings came out to the ranch to deliver the news. She heard knocking on the door and went to answer it, but at first she couldn't.
"We were always told it was going to be two guys in uniform," she said. "And there they were. I didn't let them in for 20 minutes. I said to myself, "˜No, it couldn't have happened to him.' " Tom was out in the fields, feeding the cows, when the two sergeants found him. When they told him of Trevor's death, the first thing he thought of was a 15-year-old cow that Trevor, as a boy, had bottle fed and raised as his own. Tom turned around and the old cow was right there. "I told her, you'll never see him again," he said.
Tom Johnson is a native of Laramie, Wyo., who went to Rocky Mountain College in Billings on football scholarship. It was there he met Colleen, whose ancestors settled in the Rosebud Valley in 1882. Trevor's great-great uncle was Gen. O.O. Howard, who fought in the Civil War and who in 1877 pursued Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band on their epic 1,500-mile flight, which ended with their surrender in northern Montana.
Tom and Colleen were married in 1977 and lived for a time in Billings, where he was a carpenter and she was a teacher. They moved to the family ranch in 1984 with their 1-year-old daughter, Erin.
"We knew I was pregnant with Trevor and we wanted to raise our kids here," Colleen said. Trevor was always smart, and he was a quick learner. Colleen said her mother taught Trevor how to play cribbage when he was just 4, and he was soon beating her. "I taught him chess and I never did beat him," she said. During his senior year at Colstrip High School, Trevor was in three advanced-placement classes "” trigonometry, calculus and physics. He had a laid-back demeanor, his parents said, but once he set to work on something he went at it with a single-minded intensity. "Yeah," his father said with a laugh, "you didn't want to interrupt whatever he was focused on." He loved playing G.I. Joe when he was a little boy, and as a teenager he got involved in some pretty serious paintball war games with his friends and many cousins. Colleen thinks he might have settled on the military when he was no older than 8. After the terror attacks of 9/11, his determination only hardened. By the end of that day, he told his parents he felt called to duty.
"I said, "˜Why you?'" his father said. "And he said, "˜There's people who can't defend themselves and I can help them.'"
After training in Okinawa and elsewhere in the Far East, Trevor was deployed to Afghanistan from June 2005 to January 2006. He served in the mountainous region bordering Pakistan, often sent out to find and dispose of weaponry cached in caves.
He was sent to Iraq from October 2006 to May 2007. His parents said his main job was working as a combat engineer, but he also served in the infantry and intelligence and as a rifle instructor. As a ranch kid, he was a good shot from the start. His father doesn't remember exactly what level of marksmanship he attained, "but it was top of the heap, anyway." Toward the end of his tour in Iraq, he considered reenlisting. His parents asked him to come home first so they could see him again and talk over his options before he made his mind up. They spent four days in Denver when he came home, talking about his options, and in the end he decided he wasn't through with the military. He told his mother he didn't feel his job was finished.
A few months after reenlisting, he fell in love with a woman named Nicole. "Their eyes met across the room. It really was love at first sight."
They were married on Oct. 29, 2007, and last May they had a daughter, Aspyn. Trevor also had a step-son, Landan, who is 3.
Trevor shipped out for Afghanistan again last November, this time serving in the Helmland province. His mother said he had never been happier, describing his unit as the best he'd ever been with. But none of his fellow Marines had ever been to Montana, and they could hardly imagine the life he described to them, growing up on a ranch, riding horses, branding calves. Colleen sent her son some pictures of the ranch, some sage and a handful of dirt. "Just so he could remember it and smell it. And so they could understand it. They said they were all going to come out here this summer," Colleen said. "Hopefully, they still will." He was a sergeant in the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, and by his second tour in Afghanistan he had a chestful of medals and ribbons.
From what his parents understand, he was on a foot patrol Tuesday, clearing land mines and improvised explosive devices in advance of other troops. He apparently was killed when an IED was triggered remotely. Another Marine, Sgt. David Wallace of Sharpsville, Pa., was also killed, though it wasn't clear whether it was a result of the same blast.
The troops were patrolling a road through steep hills and the explosion was the signal for an ambush. Several other Marines were injured in the ensuing firefight and it was awhile before any of Trevor's remains could be recovered.
Trevor Johnson had earlier asked to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, mainly so his children can more easily visit his grave. It might take two weeks before his interment, so his parents might have a memorial service on the ranch before then. His only sibling, his older sister Erin, a horse trainer in Texas, was on her way to Montana Thursday. Tom and Colleen Johnson said they wanted to bury Trevor on the ranch, but they understand why he chose Arlington.
"We can visit Arlington, too," his mother said, "but he's here in spirit. I can look out everywhere and I have a memory of him."