Long Ranger Resilience: Airman thrives on carrots and community

  • Published
  • By Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

Carrots are a big deal to Staff Sgt.Danielle Johnson.  It isn’t the crunchy vegetable she craves, it’s a figurative type that motivates one to overcome adversity.

The Aircrew Flight Equipment technician has had a military career riddled with setbacks. Each one was overcome by sheer determination and focus on something bigger than herself.

Johnson, an elementary school teacher in her civilian career, is not shy about spreading her gospel of resiliency.

“I tell my students all the time, you have to have that carrot, something worth fighting for,” she said, nodding her head for emphasis.

Johnson enlisted in the Air Force after her first effort at college was derailed by several issues she had not anticipated.

“I enrolled at Texas A&M at 17 to be in the medical field and just wasn’t ready for it,” she said.  “It was really expensive and I struggled with time management.”

Her father and grandfather served in the Marine Corps and Johnson grew up with a strong sense of patriotism.  She decided to enlist in the Air Force as a way to get her college career back on track and serve her country.

Her career started as planned.  She completed Basic Military Training and went to technical school for Public Health.  Her dream of working in medicine began to take shape. Just as her military career took off, she found out she was pregnant.

Her hopes for serving her country were in jeopardy, but she was determined to find a way forward. 

She completed training, took an early discharge from active duty, and joined the Air Force Reserve. Not long after, one of the greatest carrots of her life arrived.

The birth of their daughter, Maddison, served as a defining motivators in Johnson’s life, one she needed for what lay ahead.  Johnson found herself a single mother with only her Air Force background for support. 

It was all she needed. Her time in the Air Force Reserve served her well and she began to utilize the resiliency skills she had learned.

“The Air Force taught me time management, among other things, and I just fell back on those lessons.”   

She enrolled in college again, intent on getting a bachelor’s degree that would complement her medical background in the Air Force.

Those plans changed when she picked up Dr. Ben Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands”, thinking it would provide some insight into working in the medical field. 

“It turned out to be his childhood story, growing up in poverty as a struggling reader,” explained Johnson. “I was inspired by how his mother and teacher motivated him to become a learner.”

The book turned out to be another carrot and Johnson decided to devote her life to helping children learn. 

“Dr. Carson’s story resonated with me and, as cliché as it may sound, that book changed my life,” she said.

Her life became a string of days filled with college classes, followed by evenings of taking care of her daughter before moving on to take care of her coursework. When the load became too heavy, Johnson leaned on her biggest motivator to pull through.

“I had a rough childhood and wanted something better for my daughter, so when things became too tough and I felt helpless, I would just think of her,” she said.

In spite of all the struggles involved with going back to school as a single mother, Johnson plowed through her coursework, earning her bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate.

Johnson learned carrots, those motivators, helped her achieve great things. She soon learned a sense of community could do the same thing.

One of Johnson’s students mentioned her mother was heavily involved in Boot Campaign, a non-profit organization that helps veterans and families deal with PTSD and addiction recovery.  The mission of the group spoke to Johnson and she began to volunteer in spite of her already demanding schedule.

“I continued to volunteer and they asked me to be an Air Force ambassador for the group,” she explained. 

Her community continued to grow when Johnson had to cross-train into AFE when her job in Public Health was discontinued in the Air Force Reserve.

Johnson was still a single mother, trying to earn a master’s degree in education while training in a new Air Force job.

The 307th Operations Support Squadron welcomed her with open arms, offering the guidance and support she needed to cope with the change.

“Everyone here is like family,” she said. “My leadership was very understanding and they gave me the resources and help I needed.”

That extra sense of community within her military family has been important to Johnson.

“You’ll still hear people say that going to your leadership with issues can be bad for your career, but if I kept that bottled up inside, who knows where that would lead?,” she said.

Johnson’s penchant for building community and finding carrots has served as a blessing. She remarried and found motivation and support in her family.   

Life remains busy for Johnson. She still juggles the hectic life of a teacher, Reserve Citizen Airman and community volunteer, but has integrated them to make the best use of her time.

Johnson’s family volunteers together for Boot Campaign and has gotten her students and fellow teachers involved in programs that highlight the military’s contributions to freedom and democracy.   

Carrots and community have helped her pull through and go the extra mile and pursue her dream of becoming an officer.

Johnson has passed her officer board and is awaiting a date for Officer Training School.   Her plan is to keep working on her resiliency skill set and to stay close to her Air Force Reserve family.

“I don’t want to leave after 20 years,” she said with a smile.  “I want to stay until they tell me I’m too old and have to go home.”