Virginia Tech — Blacksburg to Bremerton

Two dozen years ago I went through a crushing break-up, at that point the worst thing I had ever experienced. The morning after it was over, I awoke for my long drive to college. For a few seconds I forgot about the reality from the day before, a bliss I remember because it wasn’t long until my memory returned. The hurt began all over again.

Imagine, then, the thousands of students and parents who have had two mornings to wake up and experience the few seconds away from reality until it comes fleeting back in a rush.

That’s kind of how Josh Johnson, a Virginia Tech senior and Olympic High School grad described it, though he’s reminded of the wake-up after a traffic accident.

Josh and his mother, Tammy Johnson shared their thoughts with me Tuesday evening after a couple of days of dealing with the crushing news that 33 in the VT community are now dead.

We learned about Josh on Monday. Make the right search in Google and you can find him, but getting a reliable connection proved difficult. Once we discovered he had a brother still going to school here, we solicited the help of the Central Kitsap School District. They contacted Tammy Johnson, who was generous with her time, as was Josh.

It’s a story of mutual admiration between Josh and his mother. The two have steeled each other up as he has taken on the role of stabilizing presence for his subordinates in the college’s Army ROTC program. It’s an education neither Josh nor his mother thought he or his fellow cadets would ever get in college.

If I were to suggest your reading, I’d say make sure you’ve read the news story first, then come back and click on the link below, where you can find additional notes and quotes from two hometown people directly touched by a tragedy a continent away. They’re not necessarily in logical order, but I thought you might appreciate more on the Johnsons.

Tammy Johnson, Mom, got a call from a fellow employee who was home sick. The workmate asked if she’d heard from Josh, that there was a shooting.

She called Joshn and he answered right away, so she didn’t have to wait long to find out he was OK.

He was making sure everyone was accounted for. They did lose one cadet (but not from his company).

Josh does have classes in Norris Hall, where 31 died, but on a different day.

“It’s kind of overwhelming sometimes,” she said.

She talked to him several times Monday and he said he was able to see police activity toward Norris. She said he seems OK, but he’s “more of a guy.”

She went there in November, so when they’re describing things she has a visual of where everything is.

In September there was a mental patient who killed his guard then went on campus and killed a sheriff’s officer. To Mom that incident was more shocking than the more recent shooting.

Once people started to hear about the incident they began calling her at work. She called his grandmother, who already knew about the tragedy. Family members called and were a bit timid at first, because they didn’t know if Josh was OK. Some people stopped by the office. She stayed home today. “You just had to be a little bit more connected to him, by watching TV you feel a little more connected to him.” She said she gets to a point where she has to turn off the television after being saturated by every little new detail. But then there’s the other side that wants to know everything.

She made reference to the man killed in Johnston Hall being an R.A. That had some impact on her. Seeing all the kids on television has had an impact on her. “Certainly when you see the kids on the TV and they’re all that age you can certainly connect that your son is feeling that too.”

On the fact that Josh survived: “It’s one of those kind of things where you certainly are grateful. I think grateful is probably is the best way to put it.”

They have joked with each other, “He’ll be safer in Iraq then he will be at Virginia Tech.”

When he graduates in May, he’ll be commissioned and will report to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, then to Fort Bening in Georgia and then to Fort Lewis.

She said the first year at Virginia Tech “was really hard on him” and he thought about coming back to the Pacific Northwest. But, “he’s pretty stubborn.” Once he makes a decision, that’s it.

He is sad about what has happened. He’s grateful for the friends that he does have and that his phone was constantly ringing Monday.

Daniel, the younger brother, wants to be an architect by the way, so it’s not likely he’ll follow his brother to VT.

“It’s one of those things as we hear the stories that are coming out, there’s some pretty wonderful stuff that happened,” she said, referencing the professor who put himself in front of a door and another cadet who put a table in front of a door. “Those are all great things about human character.

Of Josh, she said, “I think very highly of him.”


Josh Johnson is also known as Cadet Major Johnson, Alpha Company Commander overseeing 51 cadets from the four major military branches.

When he graduates he’ll begin a seven-year commitment to the Army.

He’s also a resident assistant at Brody Hall

He turned 22 Monday and had no plans for his birthday, thinking he had a paper to write for a class.

In 2003 he was accepted to the University of Washington, Washington State University and Virginia Tech. He initially chose to attend the Merchant Marine Academy where he planned to play Division III basketball. But his father lives in Roanoke and he said he wanted a “beyond the normal” ROTC program, all the while walking alongside students having the more traditional college experience. “That opportunity can’t be found anywhere else in the world other than Texas A&M.

From his window what he saw most was people leaving buildings immediately after they came out of lockdown.

The student on his floor who died was a cadet from another company. He didn’t know him well, but saw him most mornings. He lived in the room Johnson lived in last year. “It’s a little crazy and it’s someone that I see every morning before I go out into formation.”

The cadets are about 600 strong on campus. He said they get lot of respect, mostly because most students admit they wouldn’t be able to do it.

He said he sometimes thinks about the “what-ifs.” “But I can’t spend too much time playing the ‘what-if’ game because it’s not productive. I leave the media to play the ‘what-if’ game.”

He said he made sure to talk to his mother quickly. “I knew if that if I didn’t she would already have been on a plane to Roanoke.”

He said during the first couple hours lots of the cadets were huddled around televisions trying to get details of what happened. Once lockdown ended, it was his job to see that his cadets ate. After that it was more the ongoing task of meeting needs. Many of the cadets lost friends, so Johnson saw his job as being there for them.

He really appreciated all the calls he got from people back here. He said he never doubted that he was loved, but the outpouring was a demonstration of it from people back home. “I got pretty happy and every time I looked at my caller ID and saw a 360.”

Around 4 p.m. Monday is when he found out about his close friend. He went right over to the hospital but for security reasons he wasn’t allowed in. The next day he went back at his friend’s request. That his friend survived is astounding. “He was the first individual in the room next to the wall where the door is, so he got lit up pretty good.”

He went to the vigil Monday, then afterward people were hanging out in his room until about 4 a.m. They awoke for their 7:30 daily formation. He said he actually had trouble getting to sleep.
In describing what it’s like back there, he admitted that he doesn’t have the best driving record, and that this whole affair is akin to waking up after an accident. “You wake up and it’s still there.”

The media presence is “not like anthing I’ve seen before,” huge trucks with huge satellites. “The little town of Blacksburg is the center of the world. Virginia Tech’s football team was ranked around number three last fall and ESPN set up at the Alumni Mall. “I thought that was amazing,” he said, but it doesn’t compare with what’s in town now. It hasn’t become annoying, yet, plus he’s tried to stay away from it. He hopes the message students are sending is that the community is coming together, that it’s not fractured. He described the Tuesday vigil as one he’ll never forget, seeing that many people on the drill field. He described it as a scene where the student body demonstrated “an immense amount of pride and school spirit.”

In addition to leaning on his mother and family and friends from back home, he’s found strength from his buddies from his boot class, Deuce-Deuce.

He said over the past year, knowing that he would soon be commissioned, he has tried to prepare himself for the realities of the Army, that you lose people in combat. “I don’t know if it really prepared me that much. There is an expectation there that there will be loss. But when I’m here and I’m walking on campus and it’s home and it’s a place I’ll come back to as alumni, it really blindsides you more than it would, I think, in the military.”

He had especially high praise for the kids in his command, saying they get knocked on their kiesters (not a direct quote) but they get right back up and perform well. “They deserve recognition for that.”

He asked that everyone pray for the Virginia Tech families and for the student body to stay united. “It’s not my story really that you just heard, it’s the student body story.”

13 thoughts on “Virginia Tech — Blacksburg to Bremerton

  1. Last night I had a long talk with my son, a 4th year ROTC cadet here in Washington State. He is a trained marksman and wrestler. His comment was a trained military person could have been a blockage to the killer especially if he was rushed from several directions like the American Airlines flight flight down in Pennsylvania by a passenger uprising against the Islamic terrorists.

    If an event like this happend in open society –as opposed to a gun-free zone — there would have been an off-duty policeman or a concealed-weapon permitted civilian who would have quickly evened the score with the murdering coward.

  2. Virgina has the worst gun laws of any state. There is no back ground check for mental illness and no waiting period. This guy got his gun from a legal store despite his restraining orders and history off prescription mental drugs. Way to go NRA. Remember “Guns Don’t Kill Children.. Children Kill Children”.

    However 115 innocent civilians died in Iraq on the same day. But apparently they are not as important as innocent people in Virgina because they had the bad luck of being born outside the US so the media and the radical right don’t view their deaths as important.

  3. We need to tighten gun laws.
    No one should be allowed to walk into a gun shop and buy guns without checks..

    Why is a non citizen of our country able to buy guns so easily?

    What can our schools do to help provide protection for the students?
    Nothing like this should ever happen again!
    Sharon O’Hara

  4. JM…that remark is below you.

    Our schools need protection…what ideas do you have to provide it?
    Sharon O”Hara

  5. Washington DC (located in northern Virginia) has some of the toughest gun restrictive laws in the country. It also has one of the worst murder rates. What about the story this week out of Japan. Guns are strictly banned in Japan yet the Mayor of Nagasaki was shot and killed by a man who was upset over city damage to his car. The laws are there. It is the follow through by both law enforcement and the judicial system that is failing. Our society is failing by allowing personal responsibility to be replaced with endless excuses for criminals and the crimes they commit. This is why I just read in the paper this week that there is a level 3 child sex offender who just moved in less than 4 blocks from my home and my son’s school. But since he did not use a gun to commit his crimes against school age children, there is no outrage and he continues to walk around free.

  6. Sharon, not understanding why you distinquish between a citizen or non-citizen purchasing a gun.

    Seems to me the question here is how to keep guns out of the hands of those that are mentally unstable or simply criminals.

    A waiting period, which might be effective for those needing a few days to cool off – wouldn’t have mattered in this case.

    It is easy to look backwards at this – but how and who identifies those “unstable” prior to when they act out?

    Maybe the lessons to be learned here are simple things like making sure the instructor can lock their classroom door, that the word can get out in minutes, rather than hours when danger is suspected, and that our kids have been given some level of training as to how to take care of themselves.

  7. From what I read Mayor of Nagasaki was killed in an organized crime hit.
    Washington DC has tough gun laws but the commonwelth of Virgina has the absolute worse. This is a perfect example of why we need background checks and a waiting period for buying handguns NATION WIDE. The system in Virginia failed and there are 33 dead students because of it and there is blood on the NRA’s hands.

  8. Thanks for your thougths Bruce ,
    It appears everyone was obeying the gun laws for weapons on campus except the murderer. Otherwise someone eventually would have shot back .

    I would not look to gun laws as an easy answer , it appears only honest people obey them anyway . I know the laws that allowed you to commit a person have made it almost impossible to commit a person against their will . In times of tradegies like this we all tend to think of a way it could have been avoided . Sometimes we just have to realize that their are sick evil people in this world , and we need to stand together to confront evil , not blame it on our neighbors.

    I suggest to not blame anyone but the murderer. Let the families mourn .

  9. Bruce, …I distinguish between a citizen and non-citizen because owning a gun is a privilege and responsibility as is citizenship. If he was a citizen its a moot point.

    If he was influenced by drugs, he might not have pursued buying the guns if they were harder to come by.

    He mumbled, his eyes appeared glazed on the film he made… he appeared drugged to me.

    Why isn’t gun control uniform through-out the United States?
    Sharon O’Hara

  10. Jacob, have a talk with YOUR Governor. She just shot down the proposal to participate in a National ID program. This could have been used as ANOTHER very helpful tool in the identification and accessible, centrally located background information for checking on individuals for any kind of security reason. Background checks are a great idea. But the failure is in the individual agencies to report things properly so the information is readily available when needed. Safety versus Privacy. Safety needs to win.

  11. So trying to establish a National ID program with centrally located information that would make processing background checks easier and the information gathered more reliable is not a good idea?

    When one human is so bent on destroying other humans like the VT shooter they will stop at nothing to obtain their goal. I have no doubt that if the guns had not been available he would have turned to bombs, arson, poison or anything he could get his hands on. VT completely underestimated the shooters desire to continue destruction at all costs and they suffered more loss because of it.

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