SUNY Oswego senior creating writing major and linguistics minor Remmington Johnson recently earned the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence - Military Service: Air Force, the only such award in the state system. Johnson, a staff sergeant in the United States Air Force (USAF), medically retired in 2018 after serving for nine years and serving in Afghanistan. 

Johnson is a decorated airman, receiving multiple awards for his service. In 2012 he received the Air Force Achievement Medal, awarded by Lt. General Goldfein. In 2014, Johnson was awarded the Army Commendation Medal by Major General Townsend for “exceptionally meritorious service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan.”  

In 2018, Johnson received the Air Force Achievement Medal (First Oak Leaf Cluster) from Lt. Colonel Hass, who noted: “Sergeant Johnson led 215 hours of upgrade training, providing instruction on 113 tasks and certifying four Airmen. His efforts directly contributed to an outstanding 98% combat mission readiness rate and the successful deployment of seven personnel. Sergeant Johnson led a forecast team of eight Airmen, overseeing the reaction of over 1,000 mission weather products in support of 21,000 soldiers and 124 aircraft, which facilitated the safe execution of over 1,700 flight hours and the certification of aircrews for deployed operations.”

The before

SUNY Oswego is not Johnson’s first attempt at higher education. Prior to enlisting in the USAF, he had made attempts at obtaining a degree by enrolling in community college programs. After enrolling in an information technology program and only making it a few semesters, he began talking to several military recruiters.

Ultimately, he found that he could put his skills and interests to best use in the USAF by becoming a linguist. 

“I had to enter a program in the language I chose –- Russian –- with the intent that you come out at native proficiency which is not just the language, but also the culture, geography, among other things,” Johnson said. “I made it to the end of the course but couldn’t pass the final test, so I was cycled back. When I couldn’t pass the test again, I was given another list of career options.” 

Johnson ultimately found himself in meteorology –- an unexpected turn of events that would lead him down an unexpected path, as meteorology was not among his chosen career fields. After returning home from Afghanistan and coming to the 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Drum, which contracts the Air Force’s meteorology units, Johnson was changed.

Moral injury

It took years for Johnson to accept the moral injury of war –- the cost of fighting an endless battle that many perceived as reaching no outcome. Many veterans who fought in Afghanistan feel this weight. Moral injury is defined by the VA (Veterans Affairs) as “the distressing psychological, behavioral, social and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events. A moral injury can occur in response to acting or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual's values and moral beliefs.”

Johnson’s first indicator that he was not himself was when he developed a severe fear of flying –- aerophobia –- which would eventually keep him from attending training exercises and deploying.

Johnson turned to substances to treat what he now understands is major depressive disorder (MDD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, due to the stigma of mental illness and those serving in the military, Johnson was in denial about talking to a professional on base.

“It was affecting my training because I couldn’t focus –- all I could think about was when I had to get on a plane again,” Johnson said. “I went to a psychologist basically to be like ‘Hey, give me whatever you have to knock me out on the plane,’ but not really anything to help me get over my fear of flying.”

During one evaluation, he received paperwork to fill out and after completing it honestly, the doctor told him he was showcasing signs of depression. 

“I was like ‘No, that’s not me, I’m not depressed, depressed people want to die by suicide and I don’t want to do that’ and she told me that that’s not actually what depression is and that it comes in many different forms.”

After that visit, Johnson said it took about a year of clinical visits, treatment and exploration before he could accept his diagnosis of both depression and PTSD. Even with treatment, and attempts to get Johnson on a plane again, it came to be that Johnson was not deployable and with a war with no end in sight, Johnson medically retired from the USAF in 2018.

'Thank you for your service'

Like many who served in the military and in Afghanistan, Johnson now writes to show that the military is a career –- a job –- that has many costs. 

“There’s this expectation on one part that it’s this noble thing –- that service is a sacrifice,” Johnson said. “For me –- and for a lot of people I served with in Afghanistan –- there’s this disconnect there because I get a paycheck –- it’s not really a sacrifice. It’s a job. To me, it’s no different than thanking a waiter –- it would be like holding those jobs in the same elevated position. The mission that we had in Afghanistan, it wasn’t really this noble mission that we had.”

Differing from many wars past, many Afghanistan veterans feel as though they fought in a war with no objective, no end game and ultimately were led to failure by leadership, he said. After a withdrawal 20 years in the making that has been highly politicized and publicized, many veterans are reaching out for mental health services: Forbes reports the hotline of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs received a record 35,000 calls between Aug. 13 and 29, 2021. The most calls, 2,570, occurred on the day the Taliban took Kabul.

“It felt like 20 years of nothing,” Johnson said. “One thing I struggle with in my writing is that there needs to be something to say about it –- I struggle a lot with there being anything meaningful to say about Afghanistan. It’s different from WWII and partly Korea because there was some tangible objective, but it didn’t feel like there was any direction in Afghanistan.”

A future in storytelling

Although Johnson struggles to find meaning in the war, he hopes that his writing will have an impact on veterans who served and who feel similar to him. Johnson uses writing to reflect on his experience in Afghanistan, as an airman, and hopes to show that serving in the military can come with a cost, regardless of the position you served in. 

“We do have this stigma and it doesn’t just affect the civilian population, it affects the soldier population as well,” Johnson said. “Service members think they can’t have this affliction because they weren’t a ‘hero’ as in ‘Oh, my helicopter wasn’t shot down,’ but you can and it’s acceptable. A lot of what I want to do with my writing is draw attention to the fact that you had an ‘ordinary’ job and you can still have these things –- and it’s fine.”  

Set to graduate summa cum laude in May, Johnson has earned the Dean’s Writing Award for Creative Writing and Rosalie Battles Creative Non-fiction Award, and was runner-up for the Alix Madigan-Yorkin Short Script Award. Johnson has also published several pieces in the Great Lakes Review.

And while Johnson intends to tell stories of his military career, and break off into the horror and hard sci-fi genres, the one valuable lesson he will take with him from SUNY Oswego is that writing and storytelling is a community endeavor. 

“These stories that happened in Afghanistan and these stories that happened in training –- even if I wanted to fictionalize it –- it’s not just my story, it’s other people’s story,” Johnson said. “I feel I’m a good conduit because I have interest in telling stories and we can link these two worlds –- people who have interesting stories and my story is caught up in their story. That is the most valuable thing I’ve learned in this program.”