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Senior Airman Eric Schloeffel 506 Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
KIRKUK REGIONAL AIR BASE — As many parents anxiously await the next phone call from their sons and daughters serving in Iraq, one mother journeyed across the Atlantic to not only see her child; but to replace him on the front line.
Atop a remote guard tower, mother and son stand post peering across the barbed wire into the desolate desert plains surrounding Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq. In this setting, the role of the caretaker is reversed as Senior Airman Derrick Johnson instructs his mother, Staff Sgt. Tammi Johnson, on perimeter defense practices.
Staff Sgt. Johnson, a reservist with the 507th Security Forces Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., arrived Jan. 20 and will receive a complete week of training from her son before he heads back to the U.S.
"This is all just a big coincidence," said Senior Airman Johnson, a reservist with the 610th Security Forces Squadron from Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, Fort Worth, Texas. "When I found out she was coming to replace me, my jaw dropped just wondering what the chances were of this occurring."
The coincidence of this pair choosing to serve in the same military branch and career field is only trumped by the fact that out of the thousands of Air Force security forces Airmen and numerous deployment locations - Staff Sgt. Johnson, 42, was randomly selected to relieve her son in the guard post which they currently sit.
This chain of events was put into play in March 2006 when Senior Airman Johnson, 20, visited a local Air Force recruiter. His mother, who was a civilian at the time, accompanied him on the trip.
"My son was graduating from high school and talked to me about the Air Force, and as his mother, I naturally wanted to go to the recruiter with him," said Staff Sgt. Johnson. "As a joke, the recruiter asked if I was interested in joining up. I laughed it off at first, but then he started asking questions about my age and how long I had previously served."
Staff Sgt. Johnson initially joined the Air Force in 1983 and worked in the personnel career field for several years before separating.
"I gave it some real thought for awhile and talked to the recruiter some more," she said. "When I previously served, I was always interested in the security forces career field; I'm an active person and don't enjoy doing paperwork.
"The recruiter said there were some openings in security forces, so I hemmed-and-hawed about it," she said. "My son was joining the same career field, but I knew we'd be stationed at different places, so I decided to just do it."
Both joined the Air Force Reserve that spring; Staff Sgt. Johnson was able to keep her job for the local school district in their hometown of Moore, Okla., and Senior Airman Johnson could serve his country while attending college full time.
Her son offered a nod of support to his mother as she took an oath to return to duty for the Air Force.
"She always talked positively about her time in the military," he said. "I got the impression she really enjoyed life in the Air Force, and I thought that was the place she needed to be. The reserves were a great option because she could keep her job at home.
"I was all for it, but when she chose the security forces career field, it was a little strange because that's what I do," he added. "But she knows I would support her doing whatever made her happy."
Staff Sgt. Johnson found out she would replace her son in Iraq shortly before he left six months ago. As a mother would, Staff Sgt. Johnson initially felt nervous about her son's deployment.
"At the time, I wished I could've deployed first," she said. "We received the same training, so I was aware of the various threats security forces Airmen can face while deployed. But at the same time, I know he is well-trained and intelligent, so that helped put my mind at ease."
Senior Airman Johnson now spends most of his time preparing to leave Kirkuk and training his mother on the duties he performs from the guard post. This entails maintaining close surveillance of the base perimeter and beyond for suspicious activity. Security forces also conduct base patrols, anti-terrorism measures and identification checks.
"I've been asking Derrick tons of questions," she said. "A car rolled real slowly by the perimeter of the base today, and I started getting nervous. But Derrick was there to tell me it was the Iraqi police, and everything was alright. He knows right off-hand what to do, and I don't feel intimidated or stupid when I ask him the simplest questions."
They both feel the deployment has given them time to bond and a shared experience that only draws their mother and son relationship closer. Without this short week together in Kirkuk, they would not see each other for more than a year.
"This just adds another layer to our relationship. How many mothers and sons can say they were together in the same place in a war zone?" said Senior Airman Johnson. "This is something we can always talk about in the future and have a very good idea of what the other went through."
As a staff sergeant, Senior Airman Johnson's mother is just one rank above him; but she might as well be a four-star general. Senior Airman Johnson feels hard-pressed to think of a time when he wouldn't take orders from her, he said.
"You have to find the right balance because she is my mother and we are working side-by-side," he said. "She understands and listens to the experiences I've encountered, which will help her. But really, she outranks me on many different levels. You can never outrank your mother."
Together for now, Staff Sgt. Johnson and Senior Airman Johnson sit in a Kirkuk guard tower sharing a few laughs and the common bond of serving for their country. While a mother and son together in combat may sound unusual to some, this pair would not have it any other way.
"This is what I originally joined for in 1983," Staff Sgt. Johnson said. "I was young and an idealist, and felt serving was a responsibility for all citizens. Some of my friends back home think I'm crazy for leaving my job and doing this at the age I am. But I feel more complete as a person by serving for the Air Force and our country."
As for Senior Airman Johnson; he admits to taking some light-hearted jabs from the guys every so often. But like any good Airman, he vows to take on the wingman role and train his mother on the duties that helped keep Kirkuk safe for the past six months.
"I've heard some of the guys ask, 'Is your mommy here to replace you yet?'" he said. "My friends back home who serve in the military think it's strange to picture their mothers in Iraq with a helmet, weapon and flak vest. None of that bothers me though; it brings us closer together, which is what matters most."