Jenna Johnson: Student Soldier

Friday, November 19, 2010

From childhood Jenna Johnson knew she wanted to be a nurse, and acceptance into St. Cloud State’s nursing sciences program was one of the happiest moments of her life. After an unplanned and surprisingly rewarding detour in Iraq, she’s well on her way to achieving her destiny.

At 17, as other high school seniors worried about pimples and prom, the Little Falls native joined the U.S. Army National Guard to help finance her dream. While Johnson realized deployment was a possibility, being called to active duty after her freshman year and making the transition from student to soldier was a shock.

Johnson departed in January 2009 with an infantry unit out of River Falls, Wis. Growing up in an embedded military family – listening to stories around the dinner table − didn’t fully prepare her for leaving the comfort and familiarity of a Central Minnesota college town for an active Middle Eastern war zone – complete with sweltering heat and improvised explosive devices. Life at Camp Liberty north of Baghdad, where she was one of seven women in a unit of 230, was a life-altering challenge.

Concentrating on her multiple daily tasks helped her get through each day, and after work, while other soldiers spent their downtime surfing the Web or playing video games, she spent hers studying the textbooks she had sent over, reading and preparing for the day she would return to St. Cloud State.

Her military occupation specialty was Automated Logistic Technician, but the depth of Johnson’s experiences flowed much deeper than entering data into a computer. Applying IVs, joining convoys on missions, handling female detainees – it was all part of the job, and Johnson liked the pace. “Our company was extremely busy, and we worked very hard,” she said.

In addition to studying, Johnson kept in contact with professors and classmates. “Jenna was very good at taking the lead,” said Brenda Lenz, chair and associate professor in the nursing department. “She kept in contact with us via email.”

“It made me feel like I was in tune with my life back home,” said Johnson, which kept her mind off being thousands of miles away in a strange land where the threat of injury, or worse, loomed like a desert storm.

“It’s not like it was in, say, 2003,” said Johnson, who said she never felt she was ever in danger. But returning home safe has lightened the gravity of living in a military compound where mortars and car bombs shook the walls. “You’re so focused on the task at hand that you don’t think about it.”

Focusing is one of the many lessons Johnson learned while serving, and that attention to detail translated to academics. She returned to classes at St. Cloud State only one day after being released from active duty in the spring of 2010. Starting a week late in the semester, Johnson had to quickly readjust to college life. Engaging immediately with school helped with the transition from soldier to student where she applied the discipline of military training to the classroom.

“Jenna started right in with her academics,” said Lenz. “The nursing major is very rigorous, with most students studying 10 to 15 hours per week. Jenna missed a year of this and was still able to step right back in. Johnson and fellow nursing student Samantha Rausch, studied this fall in Chile, attending classes at the University of Concepción.

The lessons she learned while in the military translated well into the nursing program. Johnson brought back a newfound respect and appreciation for the chance she has been given to pursue her career goal. She no longer takes simple luxuries like getting milk at a grocery store or sitting down at a restaurant for granted. “You see over there the conditions that people live in, the poverty, and here people don’t realize how lucky they are,” she said. “I couldn’t be more thankful to be here.”

- Mike Doyle

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