FAIRBURY — Thirteen years ago, a U.S. Air Force captain found himself holding a cup of coffee in the middle of a prison riot after a 22-hour work day in the Iraq War.
As part of Prairie Central High School's ceremony marking Veterans Day, Christopher Johnson, now a lieutenant colonel, spent Friday afternoon telling students what he’s learned about situational awareness since that day — put simply, “It’s sort of important.”
“Have it,” he said. “(Know) where are you at, what are you doing because that’s an embarrassing story. Yeah, I got the Bronze Star for something else, and thank God I redeemed myself, ’cause they don’t give you a Bronze Star for being stupid, and I was stupid that day.”
Johnson, an aerospace studies professor at the University of Illinois, said he doesn’t talk about why he received his Bronze Star and instead tells stories that might put war in a different light.
That's where the coffee cup comes in.
He had just gotten his hands on a rare cup of coffee in his first break in 22 hours when the prison riot erupted. Johnson was sent to tell his commanding officer reinforcements were on the way.
Unwilling to set down the coffee for fear of not seeing it again, he stepped inside the prison gate, holding the coffee and a nonlethal shotgun.
“I look to my left and see the bad guys like I had for months and guess what? There’s no chain-link fence between them and me and my cup of coffee,” Johnson said. "They had pushed it down.”
Suddenly he was face-to-face with 300 “bad guys” armed with rocks ready to throw.
Johnson said to himself, “What would John Wayne do?” He then lowered his shotgun and took a sip.
The inmates lowered their arms, and Johnson bolted to join a group of his men being pelted with rocks.
“I never felt so good getting rocks thrown at me as I did when I was down there with 30 other guys instead by myself,” he said.
An ice cream social preceded the annual ceremony, filling the school with veterans and families. The audience was multigenerational, and the oldest among them served in World War II.
Prairie Central speech students shook hands with the vets spread throughout the gym and handed out copies of speeches they wrote based on patriotism. The band and choir performed “Salute to America’s Finest,” and when veterans heard the marches associated with their branches of service, they stood to be recognized.
“When you look at World War II vets and America’s greatest generation, there’s a lot to be said for that — the work ethic and the commitment and dedication. Those are all things that we aspire our kids to have,” Principal Brad Allen said. “Our Vietnam veterans, our Iraqi and Afghan veterans, they all deserve to be recognized.”
After several veterans thanked Allen for the ceremony, promising to be back again next year, he said, “That’s why we do it.”
Johnson, commander of the University of Illinois Air Force ROTC, introduced his drill team, which gave a four-woman rifle exhibition in honor of the holiday.
Johnson said he’s humbled by what the veterans who came before him endured during war, and Veterans Day is an opportunity to recognize them.
“I think just saying thanks to the veterans maybe awakens something in folks to where they realize that people do sacrifice in order for us to live in the greatest country in the world,” he said.