A celebration welcoming home “our American hero” is set for Wednesday, when memorials for Senior Airman Daniel Johnson are being planned on Vandenberg Air Force Base and in Santa Maria, his father-in-law said.
Johnson, a 23-year-old explosive ordnance disposal technician who had been stationed at Vandenberg for three years, died Tuesday while deployed to Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device went off.
Johnson’s wife Kristen, in-laws, friends and co-workers gathered Saturday morning in Santa Maria to make a statement to local media.
In the coming days, Johnson’s parents, siblings and other family will arrive on the Central Coast from Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota.
“Then our family will truly be complete and we can begin the celebration of welcoming home our hero,” said Johnson’s father-in-law, Larry Harlow of Santa Maria. “And that’s what this will be, is a welcome home for a hero.”
Johnson’s body will arrive at the Vandenberg flightline where a distinguished military transfer ceremony is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday. That ceremony will be followed by a memorial service at the Base Chapel at 11:30 a.m.
A celebration procession will convoy from Vandenberg through Santa Maria — the route is being finalized — to First Christian Church, 1505 South College Drive, for a memorial service at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Because Vandenberg has restricted access, those who want to attend the services there must e-mail their complete legal names to SrADanielJohnson.Memorial@yahoo.com by 6 p.m. Monday to receive access to the base; these people may be subject to security screening at the base.
A private burial service with full military honors will be held at a later date at the Santa Maria Cemetery for family and invited guests only.
The airman was a newlywed — he and Kristen were married in June.
Their marriage was “so full of love and life, and we all know that Dan is smiling down on Kristen as her guardian angel,” Larry Harlow added.
The wedding came just two months before his deployment in August to Afghanistan.
“His pride and determination led us all to instantly welcome him with open arms into our various families,” Larry Harlow said. “His incredible sense of humor and passion for life endeared him to all of us forever. He died knowing that he was deeply loved by his wife and family. He was very proud to serve, protect and defend his country.”
Johnson was a member of the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, the military’s version of a bomb squad.
The attack that killed Johnson also left another local EOD airman, Tech. Sgt. Robert Butler, with injuries. Vandenberg officials remained mum about Butler’s condition, but a source said Butler would be transferred to a U.S. hospital for long-term care.
Vandenberg’s small but tight-knit EOD unit had 11 military members plus two contractors. A third EOD member was deployed to Afghanistan with Johnson and Butler.
“We want to give a huge thanks to the EOD Air Force team, standing behind me,” Larry Harlow said Saturday. “The outpouring of sympathy and the help given to our family by the EOD has been tremendous.”
He also thanked the city of Santa Maria — Kristen works for the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department.
The family’s statement Saturday was made in front of the Freedom Monument Veterans Memorial at the Maldonado Community Youth Center.
That memorial includes a plaque remembering military members who have died in the nation’s wars.
Each year, since its dedication in 2001, the monument’s founders — Dave Cross and Bob Hatch from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and both veterans — have added to the monument.
Johnson’s name will be added to the plaque listing casualties from the war on terrorism during a dedication Dec. 7, Hatch said Saturday.
Along with his wife Kristen, Johnson’s survivors include his father Jim Johnson; mother Holly Higgins; brothers Peter, Will and Erik Johnson; grandmother Marilyn Johnson; sisters-in-law Tara and Tabea Johnson; niece Madeline Johnson; nephew Carter Johnson; and aunts and uncles.
Additionally, Dan is survived by his in-laws Larry and Cathy Harlow; Justin and Breanna Burton and their son Gracin; and Nick Harlow.
Johnson, who listed his hometown as Schiller Park, Ill., grew up in Wisconsin. He graduated from Monona Grove High School in Monona, Wis., in 2005.
While assigned to Vandenberg, he was active in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
In lieu of flowers, the family has established an account, “Senior Airman Daniel Johnson Fund,” at Wells Fargo Bank and will donate some of the donations to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Lompoc.