Dallas Morning News
October 21, 2007 Support pours in after car accident kills two kids on way to visit wounded dad
By Holly Yan, The Dallas Morning News
Army Spc. John Austin Johnson seemed to have a gift for evading tragedy.
During two years in Iraq, the soldier from Fort Bliss, in West Texas, survived five improvised explosive device blasts and several grenade attacks.
"A lot of people go through one IED and don't survive," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Schmidt.
But Spc. Johnson's luck began to turn with the last IED blast, which left him with a traumatic brain injury. Back in Texas for care at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he was eagerly awaiting a visit by his wife and three children last weekend.
But the children never arrived.
"I went up to his room and told him there was a problem," said Sgt. Schmidt, an Army medic who has grown close to the family over the last week. "I told him there was an accident and two of his children were deceased.
"He said, 'Two of my children are dead?' And we started crying."
Driving across the plains from El Paso, Spc. Johnson's wife, Lisa, had encountered a ferocious wind gust in her Chevrolet Trailblazer, Sgt. Schmidt said. "She steered and overcorrected, and the car rolled over four times."
The youngest children, 2-year-old Logan and 5-year-old Ashley, died at the scene. Nine-year-old Tyler suffered massive head injuries and was flown to Children's Medical Center Dallas, where he remained on life support Saturday.
Mrs. Johnson suffered bruises but was released from a hospital to join her husband in Dallas. They have been staying at the Ronald McDonald House to be near Tyler.
Though the family was too grief-stricken to talk publicly, Sgt. Schmidt said he was impressed by how they are handling the situation.
"I think they're very strong, and they have a strong religious faith, and that's what's pulling them through it," he said.
Rhenda White-Brunner, director of United Service Organizations Dallas/Fort Worth, learned of the tragedy in a message from the group's headquarters Thursday morning and immediately started coordinating aid.
"Our role is to find any way we could minimize the stress for this family after this horrible, horrible thing," she said.
As word of the family's loss spread, support from the military, businesses and strangers poured in. One anonymous donor provided five burial plots in the veterans' section of Pinecrest Memorial Park in Alexander, Ark., where Spc. Johnson's grandfather is buried. Another purchased markers for Logan and Ashley.
American Airlines provided seven round-trip tickets to the funeral, set for Tuesday in Alexander, Ark., and groups such as Soldiers' Angels, Warrior & Family Support Center and Operation Provide Comfort took care of hotel accommodations, food and travel expenses between West Texas and Dallas.
"It's been a pleasure and an honor to help them," Mrs. White-Brunner said.
The Johnsons have been amazed by the flood of support.
"They're really overwhelmed with gratitude from everybody," Sgt. Schmidt said. "They're very humble people. Everyone's coming together."
The Johnsons left Dallas on Saturday afternoon for the visitation in Benton, Ark., the family's hometown. They were heartbroken once again because they had to leave Tyler at the hospital.
Despite massive head injuries and failing kidneys, the 9-year-old was still clinging to life. Doctors hadn't expected him to survive the night Thursday, and some wondered whether he would make it through Friday, but he did.
"He's a fighter. Even the doctors are amazed he's still alive," Sgt. Schmidt said. "We're praying."
Some might not understand the tests of strength that military families endure.
With each of his IED encounters, Spc. Johnson suffered head trauma and a concussion. The cumulative effects have gotten worse with each blast.
He now faces more rehabilitation and speaks with a severe stutter. Yet he had been planning to return to active duty at Fort Bliss a few days after his family's visit.
"The other day, his mother asked why he's still doing it," Sgt. Schmidt said. "After you've been through it five times, you might wonder why someone keeps doing it. He said it was his job."
Spc. Johnson's duty kept him away from Logan, Ashley and Tyler for much of their lives, but "his children were so proud of him," Sgt. Schmidt said. "They're a very patriotic family."
Even as a toddler, Logan was a daredevil, his family said through Sgt. Schmidt. He loved anything fast and loud, particularly monster trucks and racing cars.
And he was extremely outgoing. "It didn't matter who you were. He'd be ready to come up to you and play."
Ashley was a "girly girl" who loved playing with makeup and dresses. "She thought she was 5 going on 20," the couple said through the sergeant.
Tyler is exceptionally smart, reading at a seventh-grade level in only the fourth grade. Sgt. Schmidt said he is on the honor roll at school and is also an Xbox and Wii fanatic.
The sergeant said the Johnsons have reminded him not to take family for granted. He said their determination to overcome can be an inspiration to others.
"Their strength and togetherness of family show how the human sprit can endure, even in great sadness."