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Afghanistan and Iraq Veteran comes to UNC as a student

Freshman Zach Johnson served in Afghanistan for 15 months and in Iraq for a year. He is a peace, war and defense major and wants to attened nursing school. “My time overseas truly made me appreciate stuff more. You really take so much for granted. Being back here made me realize that,” Johnson said. He returned home from service on Veteran’s Day 2009.
Freshman Zach Johnson served in Afghanistan for 15 months and in Iraq for a year. He is a peace, war and defense major and wants to attened nursing school. “My time overseas truly made me appreciate stuff more. You really take so much for granted. Being back here made me realize that,” Johnson said. He returned home from service on Veteran’s Day 2009.

Veterans Day comes with mixed emotions for Zach Johnson.

He remembers four and a half years of some of the best glimpses of humanity he’s seen in his 23-year old life.

He remembers some of the worst.

And he remembers the kinship he formed on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq._

“When I was overseas I lived both my highest and lowest points,” he said. “I saw all of the worst humanity has to offer but was also able to see glimpses of goodness shine through.”

In the fall of 2010, Johnson decided to leave behind the family and the life he had formed overseas to enroll as a freshman at UNC.

Upon his graduation from Broughton High School five years ago, Johnson joined the armed services as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division. He went on to serve for 15 months in Afghanistan with the Bravo Company 1-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment.

While in Afghanistan, Johnson’s battalion was responsible for air assaults across southern Afghanistan.

From there, Johnson moved to Iraq with the scout platoon of the 1-505 PIR, also serving in southern Baghdad and Salman Pak.

He said daily life in the Middle East came with a persistent fear.

“While I was there in Afghanistan, whenever we were on mission, I was loaded down with 130 pounds of body armor, weapons and gear, trekking miles into unknown territory,” he said. “And while I was in Iraq, we pretty much drove around doing missions and hoping we didn’t blow up.

“We lived like animals.”

Over time, dead bodies and his friends’ bullet wounds became a common, accepted aspect of Johnson’s life.

Though frequent, Johnson said those instances weren’t the most memorable.

“I remember watching a mother and child fleeing a village during one of our raids,” he said.

“Knowing that we had made refugees, and knowing that these innocent people were having to leave their homes because of what we were doing really struck me.

“I felt guilty, and it personally hurt my feelings to have the people I’m trying to help look at me in fear that I might hurt them.”

Despite the hardship he witnessed, Johnson said he hopes to one day return to the Middle East to help refugees.

It was with that goal in mind that Johnson turned down an opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy to enroll in a school he instantly fell in love with — UNC.

Nine years after watching the Sept. 11 attacks on television and deciding as a high school freshman to join the armed forces, Johnson arrived this semester with a few readjustment struggles — and the goal of becoming a nurse.

“The transition was difficult, just because I’ve seen so much that most students can’t relate to,” he said. “But everyone is still so nice and accepting.”

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Nick Koeher, a student at Ohio University who served alongside Johnson, said some of the attributes his fellow soldier showed in battle could transfer to college life.

“Whenever there was a lot going on, Zach could always be counted on to raise your morale,” Koeher said. “Zach is such a relaxed guy. He is very easygoing and intelligent, but he really knows his military stuff.”

Kianna Wood said she could immediately sense a higher maturity level in Johnson, her biology lab partner.

“Zach is so friendly and always so respectful,” she said. “He’s also mature beyond his years. I think he’s so selfless for basically giving up his youth to go fight. I really respect him for it.”

Today, one year after leaving the armed forces, Johnson remains emotional about his service.

“It’s important to remember the people that are still serving,” he said. “They continue to give their lives for us every day.”

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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