In the dusty desert of Al Anbar, U.S. Marine Sergeant Gary Johnston made the ultimate sacrifice.
The 21-year-old from the small town of Windthorst was killed by a bomb blast on Jan. 23, 2007, in the Iraqi province.
Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-Amarillo) keeps two items next to each other on a bookshelf in his Washington, D.C., office: a military dogtag and a small ribbon.
“(Johnston’s) parents gave me that dogtag to be sure that I remembered what he fought for, and that he sacrificed everything in Iraq,” Thornberry said.
“There was something very true-blue about him, almost gallant,” said Dee Coppage, one of Johnston’s high school teachers. “He was very steady. You could count on him. He was very responsible, and he was willing – always willing – to do anything you needed.”
Thornberry acquired the red, white and blue ribbon at a ceremony honoring men and women killed at the Pentagon just days after the 9-11 attacks in 2001.
“You could smell the smoke in the ribbon, because the Pentagon was still smoldering behind us when we held the ceremony,” Thornberry said. “I keep both of those things together because it helps remind me, as I go through the daily busyness of Congress, of the sacrifice that is required. And on the other hand that little ribbon is what reminds me of what the sacrifice is all about, and what those people who sacrifice are trying to prevent.”
Johnston’s steadiness and willingness to give all is representative of the men and women honored Monday at a Memorial Day ceremony at Wise County Veterans Memorial Park in Decatur. Thornberry was the featured speaker.
Texas and U.S. flags flew at half-mast under the gray morning sky as a trumpet sounded the somber, sturdy notes of “Taps.” Babies huddled in the their mothers’ arms in the walkway ringing the park, and young girls held red, white and blue pinwheels spinning in the breeze. World War II veterans, standing straight and proud enough to belie their age, were recognized.
“The sacrifice of those people who we honor today, it’s true in politics though we may not see it, and it’s true in life,” Thornberry said. “We have to serve something larger than ourselves.”
He recited a quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”
“I’m humbled every single day I’m around people who serve in the military and people who have served,” Thornberry said. “Freedom lives because of their sacrifice – because of the sacrifice of Sergeant Gary Johnston.
“And yet freedom continues to be under assault in a variety of places all around the world. Choosing faith over fear, that’s what keeps America free, and that’s what we remember and honor today. The unbroken line of patriots who dared to die, that freedom may live and grow and increase its blessings.
“May God continue to bless our nation with such heroes.”