Chase Johnson at FOB Dahlke

Flight path toward perspective


Jerry Gonzalez

He was a community college student when a trip with his grandfather to an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2007 sealed his fate. Chase Johnson saw that sleek U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter parked on the tarmac, and he knew right then what he wanted to do. Fly it.

Fast forward to this year, where the now Army Chief Warrant Officer Johnson regularly finds himself at the controls of a UH-60 Black Hawk ferrying soldiers in a war zone, skimming mountaintops and zipping through valleys in Afghanistan.  

Meanwhile, the Arizona State University alum's wife, Korttney, is 8,000 miles away at the Army’s Fort Bliss military installation in El Paso, Texas. The registered nurse from Gilbert, Arizona, holds down the home front with their son, Jackson, counting down the days until they can all be together again.

“I get to go mess around in a helicopter while she has to care for our 3-year old and do all the parenting,” Johnson said. “If anybody sacrifices, it’s her.”

The sacrifice didn’t start with Afghanistan. The Johnsons have already endured many separations: Nine-plus weeks of Army boot camp. Seven weeks of Warrant Officer Candidate School. Eleven months of flight school. Two deployments — Hurricane Harvey humanitarian relief in Houston and nine months in Germany mentoring NATO helicopter pilots.

Then there was the 21 days of Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training, better known as SERE school. All military aviators must graduate from SERE. It’s like a three-week camping trip, except with little to no food, few supplies and no shelter. Trainees fend for themselves to survive — build fires, make fishhooks, catch their own food and so forth. 

“Before going there you hear stories of people eating grass and tree bark, and you think, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Johnson said. “By day 18, I had grass in my mouth.”

Prior to his Army education, Johnson expanded his mind at ASU. After high school, the Chandler, Arizona, native enrolled in Chandler-Gilbert Community College to knock out his “generals” before transferring to ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. In high school he became very interested in business and found what he was looking for at ASU.

“I loved it,” Johnson said about ASU. “All my teachers were awesome.”

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in 2013. He remembers fondly those who helped him get there — including professors Christopher Neck and Brian Sandusky.

“(Neck) was just a reflection of Arizona State as a whole,” said Johnson. “He has thousands and thousands of students, but took the time to get to know me too.”

Sandusky was just as invested in his students, Johnson said.

“It was really cool to learn from professors at a prestigious business program at Arizona State,” he said. “I always felt they cared about me and cared about what I was doing.

“It was just a great school to go to, and the campus is awesome. I loved my time at Arizona State, whether it be with academics, sports, social life, all that.”

After Johnson’s ASU graduation he transitioned from "maroon and gold" to "green and gold." He joined the Army in 2014, and it has been a roller coaster ride ever since. 

Within three months of arriving at his first duty station, Fort Bliss, he was off to Europe, sharing helicopter air assault best practices with Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Jordanians and Germans. He returned just in time to head to Houston after Hurricane Harvey struck there in August 2017. Johnson transported aid workers and helped deliver water and supplies to Harvey victims. Once that mission ended, he learned of his next adventure: Afghanistan.  

He spent most of 2018 training for his biggest challenge to date and arrived in country in January.  

Johnson’s home for the next nine months was Forward Operating Base Dahlke in Afghanistan’s Logar Province. The “FOB” was named after Staff Sgt. Jason Sean Dahlke, an Army Ranger squad leader from Florida who died in battle in a nearby province in August 2009.  

Logar is a beautiful, mountainous place that sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. It is just south of the country’s capital, Kabul. But it is deadly. The military categorizes it a "high threat area."

“It was IDF galore,” Johnson said.

IDF is military parlance for “indirect fire.” That is when the enemy lobs rockets, mortars or other explosive rounds from usually a long distance. Thus, not “directly.” Over 200 insurgent rockets rained down on FOB Dahlke from April to September, Johnson said.

“Almost every single time an IDF comes in, it’s landing somewhere of concern,” Johnson added.

Indirect fire also often arrives at the most inconvenient times — during bedtime, while soldiers are eating, or while they are inside a porta-potty or latrine.

“I used to tell my guys, if I’m killed while in the bathroom, please just pull my pants up and put a pistol in my hand so it looks like I died fighting,” Johnson joked.

When Johnson and fellow soldiers weren’t dodging indirect fire, they were flying troops around eastern Afghanistan.

“I am just the guy who takes the soldiers wherever they want to go … drop off and pickup, same day, same night,” Johnson said. “I was like an Uber driver.”

Sounds simple. It's not. Significant teamwork goes on behind the scenes. Before any helicopter can get airborne, soldiers have to carefully plan each mission and coordinate with multiple parties. Johnson and team were part of Task Force Apocalypse under the Army’s 1st Armored Division, Combat Aviation Brigade, originally from Fort Bliss.

While at Dahlke, Johnson got to know and appreciate the Afghans. A weekly bazaar on the base allowed locals to come in and sell their goods to the Americans.  

“They were awesome,” he said. “Super cool.”

Johnson became friends with a rug maker and merchant named Nawid. He asked Nawid, who spoke fluent English, to make him an ASU Sun Devils rug. When Nawid delivered the finished product, it was great. But it had one minor blemish. The rug said “Son Devils.” When Johnson first saw the rug Nawid sensed there was a problem.

“He said ‘Did I spell something wrong Mr. Johnson’?” Johnson said. “I was like ‘No, you’re fine, this is perfect. Seriously, it looks amazing, I love it.”

After Afghanistan is in the rear view mirror for Johnson, he will earn awards for his actions and bravery: air medals, Army Commendation medals with special devices noting distinction. But they will pale in comparison to what Nawid's work meant to him.

“I want my ASU Son Devils rug,” Johnson said. “It is my most prized possession.”

Johnson's ASU pride has gone to his head. Literally. A pitchfork sticker adorns the back of his flight helmet, and sometimes the front.

"When I put my helmet on, that’s the last thing I see before it’s on," he said. "It makes me proud to be a Sun Devil.”  

In late September, Johnson made it back safely from the war zone. He reunited with Korttney and Jackson back in El Paso, just in time for them to pack all their belongings and move on to their next adventure. The Army picked Johnson for a highly sought-after assignment at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, flying military leaders in Washington, D.C.

“Going to be doing the Pentagon ‘Uber,’” he said. “Flying the brass.”

When he thinks about Afghanistan, Johnson reflects. The experience left a permanent imprint on his mind. It changed him. Now more than ever he realizes how much Americans take for granted. The nation has so many luxuries and conveniences.

“I saw people (in Afghanistan) farming for their own potatoes,” Johnson said. “They sometimes share one light bulb per village … Not everything that we have on a day-to-day basis here is something that is enjoyed by everybody in the world. It is a good perspective to see that side of the world.

“I feel like a day in Afghanistan would do everybody good.”

Top photo: Chase Johnson (right) poses with another soldier at Forward Operating Base Dahlke in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Johnson graduated from ASU in 2013. He is also a cousin of ASU Sun Devils football player K.J. Jarrell.