Tour of Duty
July 26, 2004
When Truckee Police Sergeant Dan Johnston signed up for the Army Reserves last July, he didn’t expect to spend the next year in one of the most remote and lawless regions of war-torn Afghanistan.But by September, Johnston was part of a 10-person Green Beret outfit patrolling the arid mountains of Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan – perhaps the country’s most dangerous area. For one year he searched for ammunition caches, hunted down al-Qaida members and helped the secluded eastern Afghan villages rebuild from decades of war. The rigorous tour earned Johnston the Bronze Star for valor in direct combat. Now, almost exactly a year after he left town, Johnston is back in Truckee Police blue, engaged in a much more subdued form of peacekeeping. Sitting in his office, Johnston clicks through hundreds of photos on his computer that document his stay in western Asia. His trim mustache is a remnant of the full beard he grew to blend with the U.S. Special Forces’ partners – local militia and remnants of the Mujahideen (a group formed to resist the Soviet occupation of the 1980s).The photos have their share of 2,000-pound bombs, .50-caliber machine guns, and rugged mountain scenery. But Johnston’s pictures also have a distinct Truckee flair. In one, camouflage-painted Humvees are emblazoned with large “Town of Truckee” decals. In another, Johnston stands in a crowded, muddy street holding a bagel from Truckee Bagel Co. in one hand and a “Town of Truckee” decal in the other.It’s a sign of Johnston’s town spirit as well as a testament to the strong support that he received from back home. Through the danger and physical exhaustion of the tour, Johnston was supported by a network that included his girlfriend, the Truckee police department and friends. “You are literally living out in the middle of nowhere and you have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world,” Johnston said. “It can be a really harsh life deployed in a combat zone.”But thanks to care packages, Johnston knew at least what was going on in Truckee, as the arrivals often carried the latest edition of the Sierra Sun.”Any bit of support that comes overseas to the troops has unbelievable effects,” said Johnston.
Off to AfghanistanJohnston has been with the Truckee Police since 2001, when the department began. But before that, he was in the Army’s special forces for eight years during the 1980s. Although he traveled to Thailand and South America in those eight years, Johnston never saw combat.In 2003, Johnston said it was a combination of a “little bit of patriotism” and intrepidity that spurred him to sign back up as a reserve.”I’ve always been the kind of person who wants the adventure and excitement,” said Johnston. “I didn’t quite count on this, but it worked out very well.”He realized that he was headed to Afghanistan on his first visit to Utah to drill with the unit he had been assigned.”I went back there for my very first drill and they said, ‘Hey, we’ll be deploying in 12 days,'” said Johnston, 44, who admitted the news was a shock.After training in Utah and North Carolina, Johnston landed at Bagram Air Force Base, in Afghanistan with nine other guys who would become as close to him as brothers over the next year.Johnston said he felt like he was headed “into the middle of nowhere and back into the Bible” when he arrived. From the base, Johnston and his team were assigned to even more remote locations. They headed to the mountains, a land of tribalism, hashish farmers and opium fields.The stark terrain reminded him of northern Nevada, said Johnston. The similarity was even more apparent when the snow began to fall.”It’s a beautiful country that is extremely remote,” said Johnston. Landmines, ammunition dumps and discarded Soviet bombs littered the landscape, a telltale sign of wars that have ravaged the country for decades.
“It was nothing for us to find 1,000 rockets,” said Johnston, who observed live ammunition leftover from any number of wars all across the country.The days were full of danger. Not peril of overpowering force or direct attack, but the lurking hazards of mines, roadside bombs and ambushes.”A direct attack is very rare. They’ll ambush you,” said Johnston. “You’re in a lawless, remote region and the threat of ambush is always there.”But the team did see a direct attack high on the ridges of eastern Afghanistan. The firefight, which the Green Berets won handily despite being heavily outnumbered, earned Johnston and another soldier the Bronze Star, and two other soldiers the Silver Star. Part of the group’s mission was to protect villagers from Taliban and al-Qaida fighters that often slipped in over the border from Pakistan to attack. Johnston said that while he was there, a bus carrying 19 villagers was stopped by Taliban fighters, and 18 were executed.”They operate in a ruthless fashion and would like nothing better than to drag those people back into the Stone Age,” said Johnston.His encounters with the Afghan people were a highlight of his stay, he said. The locals, many of them animal herders who migrate hundreds of miles between summer and winter, where overwhelmingly generous and welcoming, said Johnston.Heading HomeAll 10 members of Johnston’s group survived the ordeal. After almost a year of non-stop military action, it was time to head home.
A rumbling, windowless military cargo jet arrived to take Johnston and his team back to the United States. Johnston laid on the floor of the plane on the 23-hour trip to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.After a debriefing, all of the troops from Utah boarded two chartered jets to Salt Lake City on June 20. The scene that greeted them when they landed brought many to tears. Thousands of family members and friends waited in a nearby hangar, a military band was playing and Army officials were there to welcome the soldiers. Truckee Police Chief Scott Berry, Detective CeCe Rose and Officer Roy Richner were waiting on the airstrip to give their coworker and friend a warm reception.Berry, who along with Rose and Richner was trying to locate Johnston in the sea of people crowding the arriving soldiers, said the scene was unforgettable.”[It was an] incredible event to see the planes being escorted in, the band, and being there with family and friends to welcome the men and women back home,” he said. “It was very rewarding for me to be there and it is something that I will never forget.”Rose said the moment that the soldiers streamed off of the plane was very emotional.”I can tell you that there was not a dry eye in the place,” she said.After another debriefing, and flight to pick up his car in the Bay Area, Johnston topped Donner Summit and headed back into Truckee one year after leaving the town to begin his preparations for Afghanistan.”It was great to get back to Truckee,” said Johnston. “It’s a great town to drive into.”Two weeks of vacation later, and Johnston started back at his other job – tackling the Truckee crime beat.”We are very fortunate and happy to have him back on the streets of Truckee,” said Berry.