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St. Charles County native receives Purple Heart for brain injury suffered in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt. Ryan Johnson addresses friends, family and fellow soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood during the ceremony when he received his Purple Heart for a traumatic brain injury he sustained while serving in Afghanistan.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Staff Sgt. Ryan Johnson addresses friends, family and fellow soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood during a ceremony when he received his Purple Heart for a traumatic brain injury he sustained while serving in Afghanistan.

Nearly four years ago, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Johnson was on the phone with his wife while he was stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

“I heard an explosion, and then I felt crinkles in the building,” Johnson said. “And then I felt this weird tipping motion. I felt like I was in a container that was tipping over.”

Other soldiers reported that the shock wave alone made the room look like a tornado had come through, breaking windows, buckling walls and caving in the ceiling. A truck carrying an improvised explosive device had detonated about 350 feet from their sleeping quarters.

Johnson hung up the phone, finished getting dressed and joined his fellow soldiers fighting off an attack by the Taliban.

For Johnson, the attack led to a monthslong process of diagnosis and treatment for a traumatic brain injury, which ultimately led the Army to award him a Purple Heart. He received it Friday at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri's Ozarks, where he is now on an assignment as a drill sergeant.

The Purple Heart is a U.S. military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving.

The extent of Johnson’s injury was not immediately obvious, but his fellow soldiers noticed something wasn’t right.

“He routinely seemed disoriented and easily irritated, without being able to explain the cause,” Sgt. Matthew Burns wrote in a statement that was part of Johnson’s Purple Heart review.

That led the Army to send Johnson to a military hospital in Germany, where he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and started treatment.

Johnson said his treatment in Germany and in North Carolina when he returned to Fort Bragg focused on identifying the problem and how to repair the damage.

“They told me my neural pathways have changed and I’d have to make new ones. They told me it would take time, but the programs they have to help are really awesome,” Johnson said.

It took more than 10 months of intensive therapy and treatment, but Johnson was able to return to duty. He said the whole experience is a sign of how the Army has changed in how it approaches injuries like his.

“I think there was a stigma before that wounds had to be visible. The Army has done a great job in changing that,” Johnson said. “To have all of these tests in place to look for these invisible wounds says a lot about where they are going.”

While Johnson was diagnosed and treated within months, it took much longer for him to receive recognition.

The paperwork to get Johnson a Purple Heart stalled until Lt. Col. Jeffrey Reed was promoted to battalion command of the unit Johnson served in. One of his first duties was to review Purple Heart applications that had not made it through the process.

“It took me about one minute to root through some of the circumstances, a few more minutes to get smart about what the regulation said, and then it was an absolute yes to move forward,” Reed said.

The delay had a unique benefit. Johnson, a native of St. Charles County, is an Orchard Farm High School and University of Missouri-St. Louis graduate, and his family still lives in the area.

The delay meant his awards ceremony could happen in front of dozens of friends and family members at Fort Leonard Wood.

“If it would have happened back in North Carolina, I wouldn’t have had my daughters and my parents here,” Johnson said. “To have that support, to know I have those cheerleaders out there rooting for me, it was great.”

Among the audience watching Johnson receive his Purple Heart were more than a dozen trainees who got to see their drill sergeant receive one of the military’s top decorations.

“I only knew a little about his injury. He talked about it briefly, but not a whole lot,” Pvt. Devon Rhodes said. “To learn more and see him get this award, it’s awe-inspiring. It sent chills down my back. There is a whole new level of respect for him, now.”

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.