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A soldier pauses by a pair of boots placed in honor of a fallen soldier along a memorial walk organized by Theresa (Irizarry) Johnson, a Hennepin native and St. Bede graduate who wanted to commemorate a family friend killed in action in 2007. Johnson, an Army wife currently living in Hawaii, was nominated for Military Spouse of the Year for organizing the memorial 8K walk-run and for her work with Fisher House, a charity that provides housing and support for families caring for injured service members.
Theresa (Irizarry) Johnson, seen her with husband Command Sgt. Major Leon Johnson, was recognized Thursday for her volunteer effort to memorialize the men and women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Theresa Johnson came up with a catchy idea to make people aware of the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan: Organize a walk-run and adorn the track with pairs of combat boots for each life lost.
Johnson is a Hennepin native and St. Bede graduate who knows all too well the cost of war. She spent many nights praying for the safety of her husband, Command Sgt. Major Leon Johnson, and grieved with friends when they lost their son, Private 1st Class Timothy Vimoto, in 2007.
“I had done a run with pictures of fallen firefighters in New York, and it was very cool to have pictures to personalize it,” said Johnson from Honolulu, where Leon is stationed.
She adapted that idea for fallen military personnel and the response was electric. Boots came pouring in from Gold Star families and from soldiers who wanted to remember fallen comrades. Her first track in 2012 was dotted end to end with boots, pictures and memorabilia.
“After the run was over we had thousands of visitors who spent countless hours going through the boot display touching them, looking at pictures, leaving tokens, praying, crying and talking,” she said.
The idea also got Johnson a nomination for Military Spouse of the Year, a nationwide competition recognizing the oft-forgotten women and men who serve their country on the home front. On Thursday, she survived the first cut and now is one of 38 nominees representing the U.S. Army. Judges will continue to trim the field until one spouse from all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces is singled out for heroic support of a man or woman in uniform.
“I was humbled,” Johnson said of her nomination and first-round win. “I’ve always tried to reach out to other spouses and do what’s right. “I do what I do because it’s a personal thing for me — to take care of people.”
The former Theresa Irizarry met fellow reservist Leon Johnson, a Peoria native, during basic training and they were married when Operation Desert Storm was launched in the first Iraq war.
“I quickly realized only one of us needed to be in the military,” she recalled, “and he was a much better soldier than I was.”
While Leon went off to war, she cared for their three sons and discovered first-hand the trials of being a soldier’s wife. Aside from fretting about Leon’s safety, there was only a limited and informal support network available to spouses who might not see their loved ones for months at a clip.
Rule No. 1, she learned, is “make friends quickly and never say goodbye. Always be compassionate and reach out to others.”
Johnson backed up that pledge by working for Fisher House, a charity that provides housing and support for families caring for injured service members. This 8K was conceived to support Fisher House, though the walk-run is not a fundraiser, but rather a vehicle to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I wanted to raise awareness about Fisher House and our mission to help military families during a medical crisis,” she explained. “This event helped those fighting the invisible injuries. They really never had a chance to grieve because the mission continued and they needed to focus. This event gave them that opportunity, something tangible and the name and face of each person was once again brought to life by the stories told about them by families and friends.”
Her next goal is to expand this event to Leon’s duty station, Ft. Hood, in November.
Friends and family in the Illinois Valley are watching with fingers crossed to see whether Johnson advances to the next phase of the Spouse of the Year competition.
Longtime friend and former classmate Mark Schneider of La Salle said he was delighted Johnson was recognized for her efforts but not at all surprised. He remembered Johnson as a quiet but confident young woman who “wasn’t afraid of a challenge.”
Above all else, he remembered Johnson as a compassionate soul willing to help those in need.
“If she thinks there’s an issue in your life,” Schneider said, “she’s the first one to reach out and tell you she cares.”
Johnson’s brother, Bill Irizarry of Toluca, said working for Uncle Sam has thrust upon her a stressful and itinerant life. She’s hauled her boys halfway across the globe and back and been a single mom during the long stretches when Leon was deployed. She’s coped, Bill said, by helping others in the same boat.
“What she’s been through her family — her husband being deployed as many times as he has — she’s just an amazing girl,” Irizarry said. “I’m just real proud of her.”
Johnson acknowledged that the life of an Army wife hasn’t always been easy, but she wouldn’t trade it.
“I love the fact that no matter where you go or what color your uniform is we are all family and we know that we have to look out for each other,” she said. “Regardless of what your duty status is or your association to the military we all have that common bond and we are quick to react when we know our family is in need.
“I see that every day at our Fisher House. I saw it more as I reached out as a mom to my Gold Star Families through this run I created.”