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Mission: Family - A strong family deals with the darkest days

May. 26, 2013 - 03:42PM   |  
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As Memorial Day approaches, let us remember — and learn from — the families of the fallen as we honor the memory of their loved ones.

The family of Army Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson is an inspiring example of how loved ones can support each other through the darkest days as they focus on honoring the memory of the one they’ve lost.

All too often, a family’s fractures are amplified after a death, with skirmishes about money, status or other issues.

Not this family. Their loving, caring relationship was amplified after Johnson, 29, was killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 1 by a suicide bomber.

In some ways, this was not a traditional family. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice were the first same-sex married couple to suffer a casualty since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Johnson and Dice married on Valentine’s Day 2012.

Those in the Army who worked with the family after Johnson’s death were impressed by their relationship, and by how Johnson’s family embraced Dice. “When I first met Tracy, she told me she wanted Donna to be remembered first and foremost as a soldier,” said Army Capt. Matthew Boyle, spokesman for the North Carolina National Guard. “Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson was a phenomenal soldier in her own right. ... And Tracy Dice is a phenomenal soldier.”

Same-sex spouses of those who die in the military can’t receive the same benefits as heterosexual spouses because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Tracy said she knows that had it not been for the Johnson family, and the Army’s accommodations within the law, the time would have been much more painful. Johnson’s family worked with their casualty assistance officers to allow Dice to go with the family when Johnson was returned to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and to allow Dice be the military escort for Johnson when she was brought to North Carolina from Dover. Johnson’s mother, Sandra, received the official flag and awards at the grave site, but she insisted that Tracy receive a flag and second set of awards.

“Tracy was always there for us. I thought it would only be fitting that I’m there for her,” Sandra Johnson said.

Family has always been important to Donna and Tracy, said Tracy, who changed her last name legally to Johnson this year.

She and the Johnson family still turn to each other for support. When Tracy needs someone to talk to in the wee hours of the morning, she calls her mother-in-law. And Sandra says when she wants “peace of mind,” she visits Tracy. If there were any disagreements, they would have worked it out for Donna’s sake, Tracy said. “We put what Donna would have wanted first, and that was for all of us to get along,” Tracy said.

Theirs is an example for all of us, regardless of our family situation. This family has honored their soldier by their actions of respect and love for each other.

And Donna Johnson’s loving actions over the years have become part of her legacy, helping her family for years to come.

Karen Jowers is the wife of a military retiree.

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