Hoke County, N.C. — The Johnson family of Raeford has a long, proud tradition of military service that dates back to the Revolutionary War.
Over the years, they’ve learned to share the difficulty of deployments and the joy of a safe return.
But not this time.
Donna Johnson, 29, a staff sergeant in the North Carolina Army National Guard, was among three North Carolina soldiers who were killed Monday in Afghanistan when an insurgent detonated a suicide vest. She is the first in her family to die during combat.
Rene Johnson recounted the moment the family was informed of her sister’s death.
“There’s two military people waiting here to speak to you and your father,” she said. “That’s when I automatically knew something was wrong.”
Rene Johnson said she and her baby sister were very close, and they last spoke on Sept.18.
“She called me from Afghanistan to wish me a happy birthday,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to tell her that [I love her] because I’m thinking she’s coming back.”
Rene Johnson said her sister loved cars, motorcycles, Carolina Basketball and her partner of several years, who also serves in the military.
They had been together for years, before the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed. Johnson’s family says she shouldn’t be judged by her sexual orientation.
“She is a soldier,” Rene Johnson said. “She went over there to fight, not because she was gay or lesbian.”
Johnson died alongside her comrades, Sgt. Jeremy F. Hardison of Browns Summit and Sgt. Thomas J. Butler IV of Leland. They were assigned to the 514th Military Police Company, which is based in Winterville.
Johnson joined the guard in August 2006 and previously served in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Her awards and decorations included the Combat Action Badge, Iraq Campaign Medal and Army Commendation Medal.
Hardison, who joined the Guard in 2006 and was also an Iraq veteran, earned the Combat Action Badge, Iraq Campaign Medal with a campaign star and the Army Commendation Medal.
Butler began his military service in 2007, and his deployment to Afghanistan was his first. He earned the National Defense Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon.
“We are still grieving for these soldiers, their families and their unit members still carrying on with their mission,” Maj. Gen. Gregory A. Lusk, adjutant general of North National Guard, said in a statement. “They were the embodiment of citizen soldiers who put everything on hold to go in harm’s way for all of us. They will be remembered and sorely missed.”
A total of 14 people were killed in the attack by a Taliban suicide bomber, who rammed a motorcycle packed with explosives into a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol. The Associated Press reported Monday that the bomber struck shortly after the troops got out of their vehicles to walk through a market area in Khost, in the eastern part of the country.
The bodies of all three soldiers were flown Tuesday to the military’s mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where family members awaited their arrival.
“I never say goodbye,” Rene Johnson said. “I always say, I’ll see you later.”