Nevada VFW recognizes CCHS
LVN Editor Emeritus
Nevada’s Veterans of Foreign Wars recognized Churchill County High School on Tuesday for producing both this year’s state and national winner in the annual VFW Teacher of the Year contest.
The VFW awarded high-school division honors to science teacher Steve Johnson at its national convention in New Orleans in July. Since Johnson and his family moved to Fallon 31 years ago, the VFW said he has supported the military and recognized scores of his former students who have enlisted in one of the branches.
Johnson was recognized in June as Nevada’s VFW Teacher of the Year at the state convention.
State VFW Commander Larry Hire of Elko commended CCHS Principal Kevin Lords for his support of the program. The school received a plaque and a $1,000 check. Hire said rural Nevada can compete with the larger districts in the East, which have more pockets of history from state to state.
“It’s an honor out here that we can win this,” he said.
Hire noted Nevada also had a strong state winner and national runner-up in 2016 with Fallon elementary school teacher Kieran Kalt.
After receiving the plaque and check, Lords said Johnson is a great teacher and has been an advocate for the armed forces for many years.
“This is his 30th year at Churchill County High School, and it’s a great thing we have him here,” Lords said.
For eight years, Gil Hernandez served as chairman of the state’s VFW Teacher of the Year program for all three levels. He is now a member of the National Council of Administration.
“I always prayed we would have a national winner in my lifetime,” said Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran who attended Wells, Nev., schools. “I felt honored to be at nationals to see our person for Nevada win the award.”
Hernandez said older generations depend on teachers to educate younger people because they will keep programs alive and take over “our positions when we get older.” He added the VFW Auxiliary helps its posts with the patriotic programs and “brings everything together.”
Melissa Nusi, a representative from Fallon Post 1002’s Auxiliary, agreed.
“Our role here is to be a support group,” she said. “We are here to support anything the VFW Post needs. It’s just an honor to do that. I really want to say this (Teacher of the Year award) will shine a lot at the other schools in our area — not only for nominations for the teachers of the year but also for encouraging students to participate in the Voice of Democracy contest and submit their writing for that.”
Local post representatives said they couldn’t be prouder that a Fallon teacher won the top award.
“This is exactly what the VFW does,” said Dick Hurstak, Post 1002 commander. “We’re a small post with a national Teacher of the Year, and this is a tremendous honor.”
Hurstak added the VFW does so many things for the community with its patriotic programs, educator recognition and scouting, but many activities go unnoticed.
Past state Cmdr. Gerald Franco of Elko said having a winner from Nevada makes everyone proud. When Johnson delivered his acceptance speech, Franco said the delegates were impressed.
Mike Terry, who coordinates the Teacher of the Year and student patriotism awards for Post 1002, said his goal for the current contest year is to have a middle-school winner as Teacher of the Year in addition to having state and possibly national winners in the Voice of Democracy and the Patriot’s Pen contests.
Johnson could not attend the ceremony because a family member was having a medical procedure. At the VFW convention in summer, though, Johnson called veterans his heroes for defending the country, but he revealed his personal hero, his son Nick.
“In 2003, he called me and told me he was interrupting his college education to serve his country,” said Johnson, explaining how his son was a member of the Army National Guard.
Johnson said Nick wanted to go to Iraq, serve in Iraqi Freedom, and that his intent was to request a combat mission. Assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, the Nevada soldier took part in several major operations. At one point, Johnson’s son encountered an attack — and if successful — would’ve seriously injured or killed him. His son’s experience in conducting nighttime raids as a machine gunner on a Humvee in Iraq humbled the older 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 home 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.
“I am so proud to be his father and that he is my son,” said Johnson, his voice beginning to crack.
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.