OKINAWA, Japan — Worthington High School alum Lance Cpl. Jamie Johnson is spending another holiday season away from her family, as she continues service in the United States Marines Corps.
Johnson said joining the military is "one thing that I'd always wanted to do ... I really wanted to serve my country."
After finishing high school in 2011, Johnson needed to make some significant lifestyle changes so her body would be healthy enough to enlist.
"Everything that could possibly go wrong for my journey did, but I still managed to keep the goal in sight," she said of her health goals.
Johnson finally enlisted in the Marines on Feb. 26, 2018. She chose the Marines in part because she had a cousin who had been a Marine during 9/11. Also, she said, "I wanted the challenge — and the Marines proved to be very challenging."
The challenge began for Johnson during boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, where all women Marines do their initial training.
Recruits spend a lot of time carrying 70-pound packs on their backs. Wearing the packs incorrectly can strain recruits' hips, Johnson explained.
"It’s hard to adjust them 'cause they aren’t built for females," Johnson said. "It didn’t sit on my waist right."
Because she couldn't get her pack to sit correctly, Johnson ended up fracturing her hip. That set her back two and a half months for healing and physical therapy, but she was still able to graduate boot camp on time.
Johnson's next step was Marine Combat Training in San Diego, California. USMC only started allowing female Marines go to San Diego in 2018. Before that, they did MCT at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, she said.
"Let me tell you, the West Coast was a challenge for sure," Johnson said. "The hills were insane.
"In Camp Geiger, there are no hills, and In Parris Island, we aren’t used to hills like the males that get to experience both coasts are. So hiking uphill with a 70-pound pack was very difficult. Females struggled, and I know I did."
For the second time, having a pack not created for the female body created difficulty for Johnson.
"Having fractured my hip, it was a constant struggle," she said. "I thought I’d never make it out of there. I was convinced my training would end there and I might be separated medically — 'cause again I injured myself."
Although she re-injured her hip, Johnson's military career did not come to a conclusion. After MCT, Johnson went to Meridian, Mississippi for her job training as an aviation supply specialist.
She explained that aviation supply specialists staff work centers, where Marine aircraft are stored. When planes need maintenance or repair, it's Johnson's job to find and deliver the needed parts.
"It’s important that we pull the parts fast and efficiently," Johnson said. "Depending on how fast we move ... could mean keeping a bird (airplane) grounded.
"I didn't realize how important it was until I saw the chaos in the warehouse. Now I know. (My job) makes me feel important 'cause when birds are flying it’s like, 'Hey, I helped get that in the air,'" she added.
Johnson received three-year orders to serve in Okinawa, which began Jan. 6, 2019. As she approaches her year anniversary of serving overseas, Johnson said she loves her international experience.
"The culture is different, the people are extremely nice here and the food is amazing," she said. "There is so much to see." Some of the Japanese locals work on base, she added, so Johnson gets to interact with them every day.
One of Johnson's most memorable cultural experiences over the last year has been go-karting through the streets of Okinawa's capital, Naha, where go-karts are considered street-legal.
Although her job is rewarding, Johnson said the holiday season is lonely for an overseas soldier.
"You feel it because work is constant here," she said. "The job continues. And you see everyone back home, and they’re enjoying the holidays. It makes me miss the States — especially now, because I’m not coming home anytime soon to visit."
The Marines on base have holiday gatherings, and if a highly ranked officer has a house, he or she will usually invite the Marines over.
Being away from her family is hard, Johnson said, but "it's just for a little while. Small sacrifice."
At the end of her three years in Okinawa, Johnson's four-year enlistment will be nearly passed. She plans to re-enlist for another four years, bringing her to eight years of service in total.
"I would like to partake in making Marines, and I would like to be a drill instructor," Johnson said of her future plans with USMC.
After her military service, Johnson would like to work in law enforcement as an FBI agent. If she's unable to do that, Plan B is to become a police officer — possibly as nearby as Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
"I loved life in Minnesota, and I miss the cold," Johnson said.
Although Marine life has presented challenge after challenge for Johnson, it's been a time of personal growth. She said she has realized how precious time is.
"You don’t really realize how much time you lose or how much you’re sacrificing until you miss birthdays, holidays," she said.
"I’ve definitely learned to adapt and overcome any hardships I may face or obstacles that may come my way. I maintain a positive attitude by doing my job daily and seeing the positive in everything."