TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. — On a late summer Saturday, a procession of fire engines, motorcycles and squad cars escorted a van down Main Street. By the time the caravan had arrived at the American Legion hall, a crowd had gathered; lines of police, firefighters and the military parted to form a path of honor.
Krista Johnston stepped from the van — an impossibly young widow. She wore her husband’s favorite blue-and-pink Hawaiian shirt; it seemed too big even over her pregnant belly.
Sgt. James Johnston, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, had been killed along with a Green Beret on June 25 in Uruzgan Province in south-central Afghanistan. Two months later, his adopted hometown had come together to pay tribute, and to say goodbye.
Johnston had grown up in Texas and hadn’t lived here long but he’d become part of the fabric of this hamlet in upstate New York. He’d suited up for the Trumansburg Blue Raiders football team, signed on as a volunteer firefighter and found a partner, Krista, his high school sweetheart who became his wife.
And now, he was Trumansburg’s contribution to the list of some 2,300 American dead in the war in Afghanistan.
Those deaths have been easy to overlook. Though the recent cancellation of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban has attracted headlines, Afghanistan’s war has long been relegated to news briefs. It’s the nation’s longest war — the youngest enlistees weren’t even born on Oct. 7, 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and the hunt began for Osama bin Laden. But the bloodshed has seemed far distant, unless it claimed a son, a friend, a lover.
Jamie Johnston was all that. And over a recent weekend, the people of this town honored his memory and embraced the widow who grew up among them.
One day, she watched a 21-gun salute, the playing of taps and the presentation of a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. The next, she returned for a baby shower to prepare for another milestone: the birth of the baby girl her husband will never meet.
At the Saturday gathering, a combination barbeque and day of remembrance, some of the hundreds of people wore Hawaiian shirts in Johnston’s honor. It was a tradition he’d started to lighten the mood while serving in Korea.
Friends and family shared stories about Johnston’s outspoken manner, his steady supply of jokes and his constant boasts that anything and everything was better in Texas. A continuous slide show captured his many sides: The animal lover, checking out a zebra from his car window at the Topsey Exotic Ranch & Drive Thru Safari. The soldier, in fatigues, laughing with Army buddies. And maybe the most important role, Krista’s partner, looking into each other’s eyes on their wedding day in 2014, she in strapless white, he in shades and a baseball cap, after they married at the Destin, Florida, courthouse.
It seemed inevitable James Johnston would become a soldier.
As a toddler, he’d play in the triple-degree Texas summers in cargo shorts and heavy-duty camouflage, digging foxholes in his front yard. His mother, Meghan Billiot, recalls he once asked to have a toy driver’s license created for him with the designation “Special Forces” and code name Silver Falcon.
And as the son, grandson and nephew of veterans, Jamie, as he was known, had generations of family to turn to for knowledge, advice — and inspiration.
His career path had never been in doubt. He told everyone he met after moving to New York — Johnston’ father, Richard, then a paramedic, had relocated there — that he planned to enlist after high school.
He served about a year in Korea, and then deployed to Afghanistan. Johnston saw his deployment as a chance to serve with his buddies, improve his career opportunities and use his skills, Krista says. “He felt he hadn’t done enough.”
She had learned she was pregnant the day before her husband was deployed. Krista wanted to surprise Jamie so she printed a message on a piece of paper, framed it, put it in a box and handed it to him that night.
Jamie opened the box, stared at the message, and cried. The next morning, he headed to war.
On June 25th, Krista and Jamie did what they’d done since he arrived in Afghanistan. He messaged her that he’d be going on an operation. “Be safe. I love you,” she’d responded, and she awaited word that he had returned safely.
This time, there was silence.
Johnston and Master Sgt. Micheal Riley were killed in combat; the military said they died from injuries sustained in small arms fire, but, did not elaborate.
After Jamie’s death, Krista decided to name their daughter after him. Friends and family will assemble a book of stories and photos that will help her learn about the man she’ll never meet. Krista will have plenty to say, too.
“She’ll know he was my best friend,” she says, and “the love of my life.”
Krista says she’ll also be guided by her husband ‘s words after a friend, also an explosives specialist, was killed last year in Afghanistan. He vowed then to focus on his buddy’s life, not his death.
Jamie, she says, “would want us to remember that he lived a happy, fun-loving life.”
Krista will raise Jamie Avery Grace Johnston in Texas. She hopes their baby girl will resemble her father. “I would love to see his dark hair, freckles and dark brown eyes,” she says. She’s sure Jamie will inherit his personality, too.
“I know that she’s going to be sarcastic and I know she’s going to stand up for herself,” she says, “and she’s going to be just as strong as her father.”