VFW National Teacher of the Year
For years as an educator in Churchill County, Steve Johnson has personally taken an active role in supporting the military.
Since he and his family arrived in Fallon in 1986, Johnson embraced the military-town atmosphere of Fallon and for the past 31 years, the Churchill County High School science teacher has supported the military and recognized scores of students who have passed through his classroom doors to enlist in the armed forces.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars have also noticed the contributions Johnson has made to support the military due to his unselfish love of country; the VFW named the Idaho native its 2017 Smart/Maher VFW National Citizenship Education Teacher Award for the high-school division, grades 9-12. Johnson had earlier learned he had been named Nevada’s VFW Teacher of the Year.
Johnson said he was stunned upon learning the news last week along with two other national winners who represent the elementary- and middle-school divisions.
“Mike Terry was instrumental in getting this rolling, and Kieran Kalt helped me a lot,” Johnson said. “They thought I had a very competitive application.”
Terry, a retired Navy veteran, organizes the educator program for Fallon’s VFW Post 1002, and Kalt, a teacher at Lahontan Elementary School, was the 2016 state VFW Teacher of the Year for the elementary division (kindergarten through fifth grade).
“I am really happy for him,” Terry said of Johnson’s award. “His application was very strong, and he has done a lot in his classroom.”
VFW posts in the United States and overseas nominate teachers. In announcing the three national winners, the VFW specifically cited Johnson for constructing a Wall of Heroes consisting of photographs in his classroom to recognize local veterans and former students currently or formerly serving in the military and for organizing students and the Churchill County community to collect, assemble and mail care packages to service members overseas.
It has been a passion of both love and responsibility for Johnson, who was also named Nevada Teacher of the Year in 2009.
“Teachers like Steve are vital to ensuring today’s students become a great generation of leaders with a sense of pride and responsibility for our nation. This year’s recipients exemplify this responsibility by creating energetic, passionate and civic-minded environments in their classroom year-round,” said VFW National Commander Brian Duffy.
Terry said Johnson continues a long line of local teachers who have won either district or state education honors.
Post 1002 Cmdr. Dick Hurstak agreed.
“I am happy as hell for him,” Hurstak said upon learning the news. “After reading his application, I was impressed with the man. It’s great that he makes others aware of the veterans and military. It’s great for his students. With this being a military town, at least he’s getting the information out about the military.”
Johnson, who never served in the military, shows his understanding for the armed forces’ role in a free society. As a young boy and teenager during the Vietnam War, he couldn’t understand why the rest of the country treated the veterans returning from Southeast Asia poorly. Seeing the images on television convinced Johnson he did not want to see that happen to the service members who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To understand freedom is a precious thing, and it’s not a guaranteed thing and not a ‘for sure’ thing,” Johnson explained. “It’s something we have to fight for — something unfortunately to die for. I have complete respect for those who assume that responsibility for our society.”
Johnson said it’s important for his students to understand and appreciate the sacrifices required for people who wear or have worn the uniform. According to militaryonesource.com, about 1 percent of the population is currently serving in the military, while 7-8 percent of Americans are veterans. Johnson also said future generations need to know why others join the military to preserve our freedoms. He said teachers and other people don’t do enough to emphasize that in our society.
The Fallon teacher, though, didn’t become active with his classes until after the Iraq invasion in 2003. His students and other staff members first collected boxes of necessity items for the troops in 2004 and shipped them off to the Southwest Asia.
“I actually had quite a few students who were in the Army or Marines who were in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Johnson pointed out. “Quite a few people cared about them.”
Another factor — even more personal — figured into Johnson’s support of the military. His son Nick joined the Army and fought in Iraq.
“My son has been active duty in the military for 10 years, and so I have a great amount of respect for him. He’s my hero,” Johnson said.
Nick Johnson interrupted his college education to enlist in the Idaho Army National Guard, where after his basic and advanced training, he was assigned to an infantry battalion. His son’s experience in conducting nighttime raids as a machine gunner on a Humvee in Iraq was humbling for the elder Johnson.
“In one fire fight an insurgent fired an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at the Humvee Nick was in. The grenade was faulty and did not explode,” Johnson recalled.
When Nick returned from Iraq, he transferred to the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School and eventually became an aviator. He then trained new pilots and also flew the Boeing E-6 Mercury, an airborne command post that served as the primary communication aircraft with a submarine fleet.
One of Nick Johnson’s closest friends from Fallon is Donny Frey, who attended the United States Air Force Academy and later flew the huge C-17 cargo planes into Afghanistan.
“Mr. Johnson is very supportive of the military in his classes and was very supportive of my decision to go to the Air Force Academy,” Frey said. “Every now and then (when I returned home on leave), I would go see him. I also keep in touch with Nick.”
James Ditmars enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard and spent two deployments overseas — one each in Iraq and Afghanistan — and a third at Fort Irwin, Calif.
“He’s always been a supporter of the military,” Ditmars said. “He’s definitely a terrific role model, and this award is well deserved.”
Navy Lt. Shane Groover, who flies the F/A-18 Hornet and is currently deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson off the Korean Peninsula, sent an email congratulating Johnson.
“Mr. Johnson is without a doubt the most qualified high-school teacher I’ve had the privilege of learning from,” Groover said. “The positive influence he has on his students that show an interest in serving their country is remarkable. The support he has for our military is evident just by walking into his classroom where you will find a wall full of pictures of former students that have served or are serving proudly. Ten years later, I still strive to replicate some of the leadership qualities and characteristics that Mr. Johnson displayed on a day-to-day basis.”
CCHS Principal Levin Lords said he is very proud of the award bestowed on Johnson.
“He has a positive effect on the kids,” Lords said. “They respect the military more because of the visibility he brings out. He talks about his former students who serve their country.”
Furthermore, Lords said Johnson has made presentations to highlight his students’ service and how they are serving their country.
Johnson will receive his Nevada Teacher of the Year award June 8 in Las Vegas at the VFW state convention and in late July in New Orleans, La., at the national convention. Each of the three national recipients will be presented with a $1,000 award for professional development and $1,000 for their school during the 118th VFW National Convention, July 22-26.
Co-sponsored by past VFW National Commander John Smart and retired VFW Quartermaster General Larry Maher, the Smart/Maher VFW National Citizenship Education Teacher Award was established in 1999 to recognize three exceptional teachers for their outstanding commitment to teach Americanism and patriotism to their students.