The family of Susan Johnson has the military embedded into their ancestry. Johnson received exposure from her grandfather, who was a World War II veteran, to her own father, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 38 years of service.
The affiliation Johnson and her family had with the military led the veteran to embark on her own journey. In 1987, Johnson decided to join the U.S. Navy when she was 23 years old.
Upon enlisting, Johnson says she was sworn in by her father since he had acquired a sufficient rank during that time.
Johnson remembers first being made into a quartermaster since the job she wanted to apply for was not readily available. Once an opening for air traffic control was ready, Johnson switched over to that position.
“It was kind of strange but I guess they did that a lot in the 80s, especially with women because it was so hard to get women to enlist,” Johnson continued.
Johnson’s hometown of Seattle enabled her to experience life on the water. Growing up around boats, the veteran felt inclined to join the Navy. This branch of service also guaranteed Johnson would have a secure job upon enlistment.
Disappointment set in when she realized she would not have the opportunity to board a ship due to restrictions in place for women service members.
“At the time, women were also not allowed shipboard,” Johnson explained. “So, I was going to be land-based no matter what, which was kind of a bummer.”
Since Johnson sustained an injury early on, she was not qualified to continue on with her service. This led to her discharge in 1989 when she was 25 years old.
During an intensive physical training session. Johnson recalls tearing a calf muscle from top to bottom. After stretching her achilles tendon and suffering other damage to her leg, Johnson was left unable to walk.
This in turn disqualified her from partaking in the physical that was required to stay in the Navy. Johnson says her first physical was waived due to her injury. When the physical came back around for a second time, Johnson had not yet recovered.
“I was still unable to run,” Johnson said. “It was a decade or more before I was able to even walk without you being able to tell by my gait. Even now, sometimes it gets weak and I still have issues with it.”
A moment that Johnson remembers clearly happened after she visited the Navy’s sick hall. A friend of hers was recruited to be her human crutch, as Johnson describes. This was due to her friend being the right height for Johnson to rest her arm on her shoulder in order to walk.
Although Johnson’ injury prevented her from fully joining the Navy, she says her leg did not require surgery. She was informed that her tendon would heal over a period of time.
With Johnson’s dream of serving in the Navy now deferred, she did not immediately identify herself as a veteran since she did not “have any real status” in the military, she says.
“This happens to a lot of us that get injured because we weren’t technically veterans,” Johnson explained. “You can’t get a VA loan, you’re not entitled to any VA medical treatment. You’re pretty much just let go.”
Johnson says her father was upset by the news that she was not considered a veteran due to her injury limitations. Despite her inability to fully serve, Johnson still came away from the Navy with more knowledge from her short-lived experience.
The ability to work cohesively on a team is a skill that Johnson credits the Navy with allowing her to achieve. With her natural diplomacy and tenacity, Johnson says these two traits were honed in on and made her more effective in a team setting.
“Also, to help other people that are having difficulty within a team, just to sort of back them up and help bring them up to the highest level possible,” Johnson added. “That’s a valuable skill.”
Upon Johnson’s discharge in 1989, she attended the Division of Vocational Rehab where she learned how to work with computers.
Since the age of computers was still fairly new, Johnson says she worked a lot with floppy disks because there was no internal memory.
The skills Johnson learned ranged from basic office knowledge to accounting tasks. Johnson was then able to use her new skills in a long-term temporary agent position she had started. She was employed in this company for nearly 10 years.
In this job, Johnson says she had the ability to travel virtually anywhere for work. Two examples Johnson gives include a legal aid office she worked at in Bellevue, Washington and a fishing boat she worked on while in Alaska.
When Johnson completed her studies at Green River Community College in Washington state, she decided to relocate to Arizona to live in a warmer climate. She originally had planned to enroll at Arizona State University in Tempe when she was notified of a satellite campus in Lake Havasu City.
“An entire student body of 76, which is great for someone that’s got issues and needs a little extra help,” Johnson added.
In 2015, Johnson graduated with her bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned a summa cum laude recognition. The veteran says her father was proud since Johnson was the first in her family to receive a four-year college degree.
Johnson now delegates her time being a mentor to other veterans that end up in the criminal justice system through the Veterans Treatment Court. There, she lends support and acts as a resource for veterans who are dealing with life issues.
The military training and structure that Johnson experienced is what she believes to be beneficial to others. The basic skills that are learned in the military should be taught to everyone, Johnson continues.
“Learning what you are capable of, how to function as a team and personal responsibility are things that are kind of lost right now,” Johnson said. “Everyone can benefit from learning how that is an advantage.”