It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Tim Johns


Originally published on the New York Times blog. Republished with permission from the author.

The first time I heard Timmy Johns’ name, it was in a casualty report.

In 2007 he stepped on a concealed pressure plate while entering a home in Baqubah, Iraq, and the entire house exploded on him. My skipper and command master chief grabbed a helicopter and flew to Forward Operating Base Warhorse to see him before he was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Word came back to our battalion operations center: Timmy was going to make it.

This was his second deployment to Iraq in under a year. He’d just completed a six-month tour near Tikrit, and then upon returning to Virginia Beach, he had taken charge of a six-man team as their chief. He was home just long enough to get to know the sailors he’d be leading into combat and train them up before returning to Iraq.

He was sent straight into Baqubah, an insurgent stronghold. Weeks later, he was in a Blackhawk helicopter with medics plugging holes in him as they raced towards a surgical center. The enemy designed these traps to kill United States troops by bringing entire buildings down on their heads. These were some of the worst days of the surge.

Senior Chief Tim Johns was a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. As such, he was part of an elite fraternity. Numbering around 1,600 men and women, it is one of the Navy’s smallest communities. But along with their brothers and sisters in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, the military’s EOD force has played an outsized role in America’s recent wars.

EOD techs have cleared paths for SEAL platoons, and fought hand to hand as operators on the nation’s special mission units. They were among the first to enter and clear explosive hazards from the damaged American Embassy in Libya. When ambushed, they’ve fought through contact and destroyed the enemy. Even after getting blown up, they’ve stayed on task.

They’ve willingly exposed themselves to enemy fire in order to lead their troops to safety and paid the ultimate price for that decision. In the past 11 years, EOD techs defused tens of thousands of improvised explosive devices and destroyed millions of pounds of captured enemy ordnance around the world, saving untold numbers of lives in the process.

Even their wounded seem unstoppable. A combat-blinded EOD tech has shattered paralympic swimming world records and won a gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympics on the first anniversary of his injury. Some compete and dominate on prosthetic legs after a landmine takes the ones they were born with. Others battle invisible wounds after coming home, and win. One, a young quadruple amputee, grabbed his “driving arm” and challenged pro racer Ken Block to a drift race. A number of amputee EOD techs voiced their support to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in a recent video, to show them what is possible after losing limbs.

I didn’t get to meet Timmy until many months later, when he walked into Chick’s Oyster Bar in Virginia Beach, a place we techs seemed to end up at most Fridays after work. His right forearm had a chunk missing, but Timmy was recovering well. He was back in the fight.

His career continued its upward trajectory, and on the proud khakis of a Navy chief petty officer he added a Bronze Star for Valor, a Purple Heart and a Defense Meritorious Service Medal, among many others. The Portage, Ind., native told me a few weeks ago that he was contemplating submitting his retirement papers soon.

So it came as a kick in the gut to find out that this senior chief who had gone through hell and back again more than a few times was killed in a car accident last week in China Lake, Calif.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

His Facebook page is filling up with tributes and the condolences of friends and shipmates, just as I saw happen almost one year ago exactly on the page of another young tech taken way too young. That man was Lt. Christopher E. Mosko.

C.J. Chivers wrote about Lieutenant Mosko then, so now I’ll write for Timmy.

On his profile, Senior Chief Johns only ever wrote one note. Titled “E.O.D. Lifestyle,” it says just this:

“I dislike death; however, there are some things I dislike more than death. Therefore, there are times when I will not avoid danger.” – Mencius

Senior Chief Johns thrust himself into danger over and over again for our nation. He could’ve easily taken a different path after that day in Baqubah, and there’s not a tech alive who’d question that choice.

But instead, he volunteered. Again. And again.

Senior Chief Johns carried the load for all of us.

In recent years he deployed several more times to Afghanistan with the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell – a unit whose mission is to collect evidence from improvised explosive devices, deconstruct them and build the intelligence for NATO forces to kill or capture those responsible.

Timmy’s work undoubtedly saved the lives of many American troops.

Since he didn’t die conducting operations or training, his name won’t be cast into bronze and enshrined at the EOD Memorial, as Lieutenant Mosko’s will be this Saturday in Florida. So for now, this will have to do.

Fair winds to a true warrior. And friend.

John Ismay left active duty in December 2010 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander following nearly 12 years of honorable service as a Master Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician and Special Operations Officer. A 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, John is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal. He is a member of Columbia Journalism School’s Class of 2014.

Story First Published: 2013-05-08