Airman’s widow reflects one year later
On the first anniversary of her husband’s death in Afghanistan, Kristen Johnson is making sure Senior Airman Daniel Johnson’s passions continue to thrive, even as she battles in another bout with cancer.
The 26-year-old Santa Maria woman this week presented a $10,000 check to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Barbara County in memory of her husband. That’s on top of another $10,000 donation given to the program in February from contributions to a memorial fund started after his death.
The 23-year-old senior airman, who listed Schiller Park, Ill., as his hometown, died Oct. 5, 2010, while serving in Afghanistan. The explosive ordnance disposal technician had deployed several weeks earlier from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” said Kristen, a 2003 graduate of Righetti High School and the daughter of Santa Maria residents Larry and Cathy Harlow.
“Sometimes it feels like five years, sometimes it feels like five weeks,” Kristen added. “I’ve had my good days and my bad days. ... I still miss him every single day.”
Dan had volunteered for more than two years for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Lompoc, and the airman’s involvement in the organization prompted his family to make that youth mentoring program the recipient of donations.
The funds, raised from a July golf tournament in Santa Maria, will go to support Big Brother Big Sisters programs in Lompoc and Santa Maria, continuing the legacy of Dan Johnson, officials noted.
“With this money, we will continue to encourage at-risk youth to make healthy choices and stay on a path of self respect and confidence,” said Kelly Adams, director of development and communication for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Barbara County. “The donation from Kristen Johnson and her family is truly amazing.”
Another golf tournament in Wisconsin, where Dan graduated from high school, will fund a state-of-the-art climbing wall at the Phantom Ranch Bible Camp in that state. While growing up, he worked as a counselor for the Christian camp.
“He was a huge rock climber, so I think he’d be really stoked that’s being built in his name,” Kristen said.
Today, on the first anniversary of his death, Kristen will gather with her family and her husband’s colleagues at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In EOD tradition, his colleagues will detonate explosives in Dan’s memory.
“We all just want to be together,” she said.
Dan’s funeral in mid-October included memorial services at Vandenberg and in Santa Maria. Thousands of supporters lined the roadways to show their support as the funeral procession traveled. He is buried in the Santa Maria Cemetery.
On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Dan’s family will return to the Central Coast for the dedication of a memorial now being built at Vandenberg.
For Kristen, the past year has been the roller coaster of emotions.
In February, she flew to Dan’s birthplace, Ely, Minn., where one of his brothers crafted an ice sculpture memorial to EOD members.
In May, Dan was one of two airman and 15 EOD military members whose names were added to the memorial at Eglin AFB, Fla.
In June, the month of their first wedding anniversary and what would have been Dan’s 24th birthday, Kristen was rediagnosed with cancer and underwent unsuccessful surgery at UCLA.
The rediagnosis came two years after she first learned she had cancer. In 2009, Kristen discovered she had liposarcoma, cancer of the fat cells, and underwent treatment. The rare cancer usually strikes men in their 50s and 60s, and has a tendency to reoccur, although not typically this quickly, she said.
She discovered in June that a tumor in her abdomen was deemed inoperable — “which is never a fun word,” Kristen noted wryly.
After already going through a regimen of radiation, on Thursday she begins seven days of in-patient chemotherapy at Marian Medical Center.
After two of those chemotherapy sessions and radiation, doctors hope the tumor moves away from the aortic valve and then can be removed surgically.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed and saying lots of prayers,” she said. “That’s been a huge part of my year.”
When she was again diagnosed with cancer in June, she had only returned to her job for the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department three months earlier.
“It’s literally been a roller coaster of happiness and sadness, trying to move forward with work and then getting put back with cancer,” she said.
While her husband isn’t able to be by her side, she feels his presence.
“Dan’s been a huge help even though he’s still gone,” she said. “I still talk to him. I just want to make him proud. With all the treatment, I know he’d want me to keep my head up and go through everything as strong as I can. I just think about him each hard day and it makes it way easier. He’s still helping me.”
She’s bolstered by strong support from both her own family and Dan’s, along with their EOD family. Her faith, and the faith she and Dan built together in their brief marriage, also have aided her in the past year, she added.
“Really, when I’m falling apart, I just know that Dan wants me to stay strong, and he wants me to just fight my hardest, and that literally changes my day around. I go from being so upset to just being determined.
“Dan and my family and friends have never left my side. It’s insane how much support I have. ... I’m just so blessed to have the support that I have.”