How a dedicated military spouse spearheaded a mission to honor our nation’s fallen.
by Stacey Faris, 2014 & 2015 Yuma Proving Ground Spouse of the Year | Military Spouse | October 2015
They stand in formation just as their fallen once did. They honor those lost to war through pictures and words. This is what Theresa Johnson’s Fisher House Run, Walk or Rolls have become: A story told through boots, miles walked and connections made.
What started in 2012 on Pearl Harbor’s historic Ford Island as a “Run, Walk, or Roll” meant to honor a fallen family friend and spread the word about the Fisher House has now blossomed into four separate events, each with their own display of 7,000+ boots and hundreds of volunteers. Since its inception, more than 12,000 people have participated.
For Johnson, this is a labor of love. As she explains it, “I wanted to start this to honor one man, but realized it had to be all or none. It is forever dedicated in loving memory of PFC. Timothy Vimoto.”
The original plan was to set up a boot for only those killed downrange post-911. However, when news of the event spread, families began reaching out to Johnson asking for their service members to be included.
When the mother of a soldier who had committed suicide contacted Johnson and explained, “My son’s body died at Fort Riley, but he was killed in Iraq,” Johnson knew that anyone who had served honorably and later died from injured, whether physical or mental, sustained due to war must be represented with a boot.
Neither Theresa Johnson, married for 25 years to Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Johnson, nor her husband are strangers to the hardships of military life. Many losses have hit CSM Johnson’s unit over the years and multiple family friends have experienced loss during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
None, however, was harder to process than the loss of dear family friend, PFC. Timothy Vimoto on June 5, 2007.
“Tim was like one of our kids. He played football with my two older sons, and when our division at Fort Campbell deployed, he was at our house all of the time,” says Johnson.
She explained that the families’ bond began when they first arrived at Fort Campbell, prepared to spend their first Thanksgiving in Tennessee without household goods. “Tim went home and told his family, who happened to be hosting a huge feast. They opened their arms and hearts to us insisting we be with family.”
Johnsons’s youngest, Leon, learned of Tim’s passing via Myspace and shared it with his mom.
Johnson said the hardest part was, “When I was on my way to pick up the older boys from school I kept trying to figure out how I was going to tell them about the loss of their ‘big brother.’ I will never forget that day.”
The Vimoto Family’s loss, especially heartbreaking because Tim’s father was his brigade sergeant major at the time, always weighed heavily on Theresa’s mind. In 2012, as her own middle son, Blake, prepared to his first deployment, she continuously had the thought, “It could always be us.”
THE FISHER HOUSE
While Blake returned safely to Germany from deployment, he was involved in a terrible automobile accident shortly after. The morning that her household goods were set to arrive at Fort Hood, she got a text that Blake was seriously injured. Receiving very little help or information from the military, Johnson immediately turned to her employers at the Fisher House to devise a plan for getting to Germany to be with Blake during those first critical days.
The Fisher House Foundation offers the Hero Miles Program to families of the ill/injured. The program provides free airlines tickets, thanks to the generosity of the American public and donated airline miles. Johnson, along with her youngest, was able to fly to Germany and be with Blake as he endured multiple surgeries. Johnson’s older son, Taylor, flew over a few weeks later to relieve them.
When Blakes recovery took longer than expected and required a move to the new Walter Reed Bethesda for further treatment, Johnson went from Tripler Fisher House Manager to just a mom staying at the Fisher House with her son.
The tremendous support she received from the Fisher House and the foundation make it clear ––highlighting this organization at her events was imperative. She’s made it her personal mission to “help people know the Fisher House before they need us!”
PLANS OF ACTION
The inaugural “Tripler Fisher House Hero & Remembrance––Run or Walk,” was planned and executed in just three months. On August 18, 2012, participants traveled along a route lined with the boots symbolizing the fallen just as the sun rose about Ford Island.
Once the run/walk was completed, the boots were immediately moved to a parade field for three weeks of viewing concluding on September 12.
The designated route was incredibly meaningful as participants viewed not only the boots on the path but were given a clear view of the USS Missouri and USS Arizona. The dates of the events are also not coincidental. The Tripler House events falls over the anniversary of 9/11, beginning September 3 and culminating on the morning o September 12. The Fort Hood events begins October 30 and ends November 12, the morning after Veterans Day.
Johnson coordinates both events without financial support or an official team. All help comes from family, friends, and community volunteers.
Allowing the host communities to take ownership of the vent by sponsoring small portions makes it so event participants are never asked to pay.
As Johnson put it. “The fallen remembered here have already paid the ultimate price.”
WHAT DOES IT SIGNIFY?
Boots meant to signify “walking a mile in their footsteps” allow families and battle buddies something tangible to see. The boots have been collected by the pallet load––35 pallets to be exact. And lest you forget, that’s for full sets, one for each venue (Ford Island, Fort Hood, Fort Benning, and Fort Campbell) because moving them back and forth between Hawaii and Texas or North Carolina and Georgia is not practical or economical.
Each boo receives a laminated card containing the name and picture of the fallen, special items provided by family and friends are then added, and finally, the tags are color coordinated by year. Prepping the boots is a massive undertaking but it is only a quarter of the work. Once properly adorned, they are laid out along the route for the “Run, Walk, or Roll.,” moved immediately after to a parade field for two weeks as a static display and finally packed up and put into storage for the following year.
The events have grown not only in number of boots on display, but in the amount of volunteers and activities for participants. On the parade field, military banks provide musical support and play “Taps.” Special guests speak to participants, and there are even rifle details present to provide a gun salute prior to the run/walk.
A group of motorcyclists composed of active duty service members, veterans and family members now leads runners, walkers and bikers to the parade field with a Patriot Guard-style escort; hence the addition of “Roll.” Hand-bikers, wheelchairs, and Wounded Warriors follow behind the motorcycles, and military units, having started in formation, fall in directly behind. The remaining participants complete the grouping.
"It’s an interactive event for me,” Johnson says. I’m there from sun up to sun down telling people the stories of the faces on the boots. It’s so personal to me.”
In order to encourage participation by military unites, Johnson and her husband established the “Traveling Bronze Boots Award,” which is awarded at each event to the unit or group with the most participants registers. Johnson has found that the event is very cathartic for battle buddies left behind.
Meeting the families and friends of the fallen is restorative on both sides as Johnson relays, “a Gold Star Mom was on the parade field at one event when a few of her son’s battle buddies arrived. Each of them, in their sorrow, felt only their own memories remained of their fallen hero. As they talked, they learned that the connection and stories shared were ‘golden nuggets’ of healing in their mourning.”
“The boots are therapeutic for so many. People who come are protective of the display and memories surrounding it. It’s almost sacred for the participants,” says Johnson. She says it’s amazing how quiet it is event with hundreds of people viewing at once.
For Johnson herself, she says each year is life-changing. “Aside from getting married and having children,” Johnson says, “it’s the most memorable thing most participants will ever do.”
As a Community it is our responsibility to never forget. We need to honor the fallen, the families left behind, and the communities which support them.” –– Theresa Johnson