By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MUSCATINE — Students at Saints Mary and Mathias Catholic School have developed a special connection with a local soldier stationed in Texas who is Dad to two of their schoolmates.
The kindergarten and second-grade classes adopted Army Reserve Engineer Officer Justin Johnson, a parent who is on a one-year assignment at Fort Hood. The students have been sending letters and other well wishes to Johnson and his battalion of about 80 soldiers.
The correspondence began shortly after Johnson left for Fort Hood last fall. He wanted to find a way to stay involved at his children’s school, so he reached out to their teachers, Lindsey Kraushaar and Janna Gusmano, about the possibility of speaking to the classes over a Zoom call.
Johnson’s son Leonard is a student in Kraushaar’s second-grade class and son Samuel is in Gusmano’s kindergarten class.
Johnson enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2002 after graduating from college, serving eight years as an enlisted infantryman before transferring to the Army Reserve in 2010. He currently oversees a training support battalion of about 80 soldiers. “Not being there for all the little things that go on in (my children’s) lives is probably the hardest part about being down here away from them,” Johnson said.
Johnson participated in Zoom calls with both classes on Veterans Day in November. “The students were very excited and interested to learn not only about this special day, but a little bit about the Army and serving our country in general,” Kraushaar said.
After the Zoom meetings, the two classes wrote or drew letters of appreciation to the soldiers in Johnson’s battalion. The classes also raised money to buy the soldiers coffee from Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran-owned company. “We discovered that good coffee was hard to come by there,” Gusmano said.
The soldiers responded by sending thank-you cards to each student. “The students were thrilled to not only have received their very own mail, but also to find out how much their efforts were appreciated by the soldiers who are away from their families,” Kraushaar recalled. “They really got to see what a large effect they had on the soldiers!”
At the end of January, Johnson visited the classes during a short trip home, answering questions and talking about Army life. In his current assignment, Johnson is the officer in charge of soldiers who ensure that deploying National Guard and Reserve Soldiers are proficient at using individual and crew-service weapons and vehicles to which they are assigned while deployed. “My soldiers also provide cultural awareness and regional language training to help (other) soldiers understand the political climate, cultural norms and history of the areas they are deploying to.”
He presented the students with “Meals Ready to Eat” — self-contained, individual field rations in lightweight packaging used by service members in combat or other field conditions where organized food facilities are not available.
Johnson hoped his visit would help the students better understand why the United States has an army, and why sometimes loved ones have to put on a uniform and “go away for a bit.” The Army does “more than just chase down bad guys,” he told the students.
For Johnson and his fellow soldiers, the correspondence has been a morale booster. “This relationship has helped us feel connected while we are away from our families. It’s spurred conversations … that make being away from family a little more bearable,” said Johnson, who is set to return home to Muscatine in November.