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Calumet native killed in ambush; first U.P. resident to die in Iraq war

The Daily Mining Gazette
Oct. 22, 2003; pp 1,9A

HOUGHTON — When Mary Johnson last spoke with her husband Saturday, Army Staff Sgt. Paul J. Johnson marveled at how fortunate his unit had been throughout the war in Iraq.

“He was just saying that it was amazing that we haven’t gotten hit yet,” Mary Johnson said Tuesday from her home in Fayetteville, N.C.

She urged her husband to take care of himself.

“I was always telling him, ‘Be safe, and I know that you’ve got to look out for other guys, but you’ve got to look out for yourself, too,’” she said.

Calumet native Paul Johnson, 29, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, was killed Monday in a midday ambush in Fallujah, Iraq. He was raised in Calumet and graduated from Calumet High School. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. and lived in nearby Fayetteville with his wife Mary and 4-year-old son Bryan.

He is the first Upper Peninsula native to be killed in the war, and the 14th Michigander.

Mary Johnson said her husband died an honorable, duty-bound soldier.

“He wanted to be there for his guys and that was important for him — to see the job done well,” she said.

Paul Johnson was recalled by family and friends as a caring man who loved his family, working in his yard, building things and playing hockey. His mother-in-law and next-door neighbor Ann Scoggins said Johnson — known as PJ — was the type of person everyone immediately liked.

“PJ is the kind of son-in-law that every mother would want her daughter to marry,” Scoggins said.

She said Johnson was a handsome man standing 5 feet, 9 inches tall with brown hair. She urged everyone to put a human face on wartime casualties.

“It’s important to remember that every name you see scrolling on the TV belongs to a family,” Scoggins said.

Johnson was part of a dismounted patrol consisting of 30 soldiers and five Humvees heading into Fallujah, west of Baghdad, according to The Associated Press. Insurgents attacked Johnson’s vehicle by detonating a homemade bomb and opened fire on the patrol with small arms, the U.S. command said.

Witnesses said the patrol returned fire and detained at least nine Iraqis. Six soldiers were wounded in the skirmish and taken to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. The U.S. Department of Defense said the attack is under investigation.

The ambush occurred near where an ammunition truck was attacked Sunday after a breakdown.

Johnson graduated from Calumet High School in 1991. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1993 and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in 1999.

Mary and Paul Johnson married in April 1996.

Johnson briefly left the Army and returned to Calumet in 1997 with his wife. Mary Johnson said her husband enjoyed living in the area.

“He just liked how close the town was,” she said. “You pretty much know anybody in town.”

After about a year in the Copper Country, Johnson decided to re-enlist in the Army as a career soldier.

“His love was for the Army, and he wanted to do that long-term,” Mary Johnson said.

Paul Johnson was a squad leader in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, according to the Fayetteville Observer. Johnson’s awards included a combat infantry badge and a bronze star for heroism in battle. He was a senior rated jumpmaster.

Before being deployed to Iraq in mid-August, Johnson served for six months in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and for a year in Bosnia before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Scoggins said her son-in-law loved his family and his country.

“He felt the need to make the change, to make the difference,” she said.

Scoggins said Johnson planned to seek a new assignment stateside.

Calumet resident and friend Matt Nagel described Johnson as a “goofball,” who passionately pursued anything that attracted his interest.

“He was a spontaneous, very charismatic type of personality,” Nagel said.

Nagel and Johnson were once stationed at Fort Bragg at the same time, but in different units. Johnson, Nagel said, was pursuing a life-long dream of serving in the Army.

“For him to be able to go and be able to do his job, that was him in his element,” Nagel said.

Johnson loved hockey and was a Detroit Red Wings fan who often took his son Bryan to hockey games around North Carolina, Mary Johnson said.

Nagel said Johnson loved playing goalie during pick-up games in the Copper Country.

“You have to have a certain mentality to be a goalie and he fit,” Nagel said.

A total of 339 Americans have died since the Iraq war began March 20, including 218 in combat.

Mary Johnson said funeral arrangements are still tentative but that services will be held in Fayetteville. Most of Johnson’s family, which no longer resides in the Copper Country, is en route to North Carolina. She said a memorial service may be held in Michigan.

Efforts to contact Johnson’s parents, who are no longer living in the area, were unsuccessful.

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Material from The Daily Mining Gazette © 2001-2004, Ogden News Publishing of Mich.