Student veterans answer the call to help fight COVID-19

Josh Johnson
Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson could have coasted to the finish line this semester. He could have finished his capstone project and collected his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Colorado State University – all while continuing to train for triathlons.

But if you’ve ever met Johnson – and chances are fairly good that you’ve seen his face on campus at some point over the past four years – you know that coasting is not in his DNA. And neither is sitting on the sidelines. He’s a doer, a go-getter – that guy who seems to volunteer for everything and only reluctantly takes “no” for an answer.

So, it will come as no surprise that Johnson – a first sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and member of the reserves – requested an assignment during the state’s COVID-19 lockdown. That’s why you’ll find him at a hotel in Cortez, Colorado, some 440 miles from his apartment in Fort Collins.

“It was actually hurting me to be on the sidelines watching COVID-19 sweeping across the nation, so I asked my leadership for an opportunity to help,” Johnson said. “I’m grateful for this opportunity because I love serving others. I love helping people.”

Johnson was told to be in Denver on Sunday, April 3, to get his assignment. He got a quick military haircut – “My roommate became a barber overnight,” he laughed – and before long was driving to Montezuma County. He is one of 150 members of the Colorado Air National Guard deployed to 10 counties around the state that requested assistance. Not only had Johnson never been to the southwestern part of Colorado, he had no idea what to expect when he got here.

“Josh is in his final semester and he’s knee-deep in applying to grad schools, and yet within 24 hours of being notified that he could be deployed he had a haircut and was standing tall in Montezuma County,” said Marc Barker, director of CSU’s Adult Learner and Veteran Services. “Josh has always been a tremendous leader, so I’m not surprised he actually volunteered for duty. That sense of community exists in many of our student veterans.”

CSU student veterans deployed

Josh Johnson and Ben Yowkey

Capt. Ben Yokley (left) and Johnson have been working to help fight COVID-19.

Barker said he knew of at least five CSU student veterans who had been deployed in the fight against COVID-19. Some, like Johnson, are now helping out in rural Colorado counties. Others are working at Buckley Air Force Base, helping coordinate distribution of medical supplies.

Johnson and Capt. Ben Yokley, his teammate, have been working with county officials, to help prepare the small (8,400 residents) community for the worst. They were joined this week by members of Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization.

“As soon as we got here we could see there were an overwhelming number of tasks to do to prepare for an emergency,” Johnson said. “We created an emergency email box on the first day and have been doing whatever we can to help the county. We assist the county’s emergency manager with tasks and help communicate with multiple agencies – anything that’s needed, really.”

As of this week, Montezuma County had reported 12 cases of COVID-19, so the medical impact thus far has been manageable – even in a county where there is but one small hospital. The governor’s stay-at-home order, however, has turned Cortez into very quiet place. With much of the local economy dependent upon tourism, businesses are suffering.

“The people here are hurting, but they really love the military here and have welcomed us with open arms,” Johnson said.

Online classes

Josh Johnson 140th Wing logoJohnson and Yokley – an Air Force Academy graduate who had to put his professional baseball career on hold – spend their days doing their assigned tasks, helping the county prepare for an outbreak. At night, Johnson does his CSU coursework online. He’s taking three classes in his final semester: physiology with John Walrond, psychology with Alyssa Gibbons, and his psychology capstone project with Tori Crain.

“My professors have been awesome – letting me do my papers at night and take tests on the weekends,” he said. “The teachers that have impressed me the most are the ones who said we are not going to make these online classes the most advanced, rigorous class we can make them. Instead they realize the hardships that are on students and their families. We want to keep our jobs. We’ve got children running around, vacuums running, and dinner cooking. Students need to do their homework whenever they can, and the best teachers are the ones who have recognized that.”

In the meantime, Associated Students of CSU has allowed Johnson to keep his senate seat, he continues to sit on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Student Media, and he’s still on the college council for the College of Natural Sciences. Oh, and he’s still president of CSU’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, named earlier this year the best in the nation, and helping transform one of that organization’s signature events – Operation Bear Hug – into a virtual reality.

“I’m a little busy,” he said, smiling.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is what I signed up for – I want to be able to help people,” he said.