A medical discharge from the army was not what Justin Johnson had in mind. His plan was to spend his life serving his country, but life didn’t turn out the way he wanted. Coming home early was devastating.
“I never dreamt of leaving the military,” he explains.
He had served his country honorably for 14 years with three combat deployments, first in 2003–2004 in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, then a second tour in 2005. He started a third tour in 2007, but later that year came the discharge.
Taking Off the Uniform
Now what was he supposed to do? Taking off the uniform and jumping into civilian life felt like whiplash. Like many who come home, Johnson wasn’t sure which direction to go next. So, he sort of fell into a semblance of a life.
“I got on a really bad path,” he says. “I had a rough time. I lost my identity, and I really let myself go.”
In the army, Johnson had purpose and direction. Structure. A reason to wake up in the morning. But when he came home to Utah, he battled with PTSD. And he didn’t have a clear path.
Johnson needed to find that again.
Finding Renewed Purpose
“My ‘aha moment’ happened when I saw a picture of myself,” he says. “I didn’t recognize myself. I thought, ‘This is not who I want to be.’ In the military, I worked hard to get fit.”
Somehow, Johnson knew that fitness was his new focus. He joined a gym. It seems like such a simple thing, but it changed the trajectory of his life. And many other vets.
Of course, the hard part wasn’t simply joining the gym—it was showing up regularly to work out.
“I was sore. I missed days. But I was not a quitter. I went back,” Johnson explains. “It changed my life. It saved my life.”
As the endorphins kicked in, other areas of Johnson’s life improved. He slept better, ate better, quit drinking, and his mood changed. After a while his body changed, and seeing the changes in his physique was encouraging.
“I gained my confidence back,” he recalls. “I used to think, ‘I used to be somebody.’ Then I was nothing. Now I know that I’m still somebody.”
He was on to something. And Johnson was anxious to help others just like him.
Connecting with Veterans
Having experienced PTSD and trying to cope with an early discharge, Johnson looked around and thought, “There are others who need help.” So, he started a nonprofit called Operation Combat Boots. His employer, John Turner, was one of the first to donate and serves as a board member.
Partnering with Utah EOS Fitness and VASA Fitness locations, Operation Combat Boots provides free gym memberships for veterans. Johnson holds sign-up events throughout the year (follow them on Instagram for dates), or veterans can find instructions on the website to sign up anytime.
Johnson says that hitting the gym to workout and get those endorphins flowing helps veterans feel good. Making progress on their fitness journey makes them feel even better. But there’s an even bigger benefit of the nonprofit: connection.
“They get a free gym membership and a t-shirt. That way, we can recognize each other when we workout,” Johnson says. “We become instant friends.”
Those connections have already fostered regular workout buddies who encourage each other to keep going to the gym, and even lifelong friends who meet up outside of the gym. Having a community around them who know what they’ve been through is key to improving mental health, Johnson adds.
Today, the nonprofit has about 300 veterans participating. Johnson would love to see that number grow. There are currently more than 143,000 veterans in Utah. And why stop there? Johnson dreams of it someday going nationwide.
According to Johnson, veterans suffering from PTSD are twice as likely to die from suicide. Helping give veterans purpose through physical fitness and a community are key to helping them feel like they belong. That’s why Johnson is so passionate about what he does.
Johnson says that he is constantly inspired by the veterans who find Operation Combat Boots and how they have transformed.
One of the oldest veterans participating is 86 years old and works out four days a week. A colonel who served in the army for 22 years worked out with Johnson and talked about how hard it can be to transition to civilian life.
One vet lives five blocks away from the gym but couldn’t afford to join, so he walked to the sign-up event. He had been a shut-in but now has a reason to get out and interact.
“There are so many blessings,” says Johnson. “So many positive stories.”
To donate to Operation Combat Boots, Venmo @O-C-B (business account) or mail checks to:
Operation Combat Boots
778 North 420 West
Santaquin, Utah 84655
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