Goal completed!

Sep 1, 2022

1LT David Johnson, right, visiting with Col. Chaplain, U.S.  Army (Ret.) Scott McCrystal after a Veterans Days service at Evangel University in November 2011.
Andrew Johnson

It was awesome news to learn the last photo for the VVMF Faces project was found, and the goal of finding at least one photo for every name on the Wall was completed. Many people behind the NNA, state newspaper associations, community newspapers and journalism schools from around the country joined the effort in 2014 to find over 24,000 missing photos from the 58,281 names engraved on the WALL. Not only did these people find pictures, but they also told stories about these American heroes. All the people who worked on the project served their country in a unique and memorable way that will leave a legacy for future generations.

Many people who worked on this project had some personal military connection or were dedicated patriots. My connection is my son, 1LT David Johnson. He was KIA by an IED in small arms battle he led in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on January 25, 2012. David loved serving as a platoon leader in the Army. He felt it was his life’s purpose to lead soldiers into battle. He achieved his purpose. His work saved many others in the military. It was not how long David lived that counts, but how well he lived his 24 years. His faith and life have inspired many, including me. Like many of the recent KIAs from the War on Terror, David is buried in Arlington with a simple white gravestone marking his location in section 60. He joined the over one million military members who gave their all in our country’s history.

The names etched onto a military gravestone or on memorials like the VVMF Wall are representative of a real person's life. A photo of the fallen person tells more about the story of the person’s life. A photo translates just a name into a portrait of a real person who lived and died. A photo adds meaning. Finding the photos was an important mission to me.

I have learned that monuments and memorials are primarily for the living. It reminds us of the tremendous personal sacrifices made for our great country so we can be free. It is a place we can reflect, mourn, and most importantly, never forget. It is also a place that should inspire us to live better lives because of the sacrifices made.

My wife and I received counseling from the Army after our son was killed. At the last session, the counselor asked us: “What do you think David would want you to do with your lives?” There is no question that David would want us to live full lives and help as many others as possible. I suspect that many of our fallen military, including those listed on the Wall, would say the same thing. I would go a step farther and argue that the living have a responsibility to honor our heroes by living fully.

Vietnam veterans from across the country have been extra kind toward recent Gold Star families. Many would come to military funerals, including my own son’s. It was not uncommon for a Vietnam vet to welcome me with a big hug and cry with me. They would tell me they would never forget my son, even though they were mistreated when they came home. It was a strange connection I cannot explain in words. All I know is that they loved my son and me. Many of them offered to help in any way they could. I could often sense their losses represented by the etching on the Wall. Every name represented someone special. Completing the task of finding at least one picture for every name was a way to honor not only those who gave their all but also the living Vietnam veterans and Gold Star families. They have also paid an enormous price for being Americans.

When I learned about the Faces Project, I immediately thought it would be a way that newspapers could uniquely serve our country. My son David would be so proud of the newspapers helping find photos for fellow veterans.

May we all live in such a way to honor all American heroes!

Andrew Johnson served as a rural Wisconsin newspaper publisher for over 30 years before selling his papers in 2020. He was NNA president in 2018. Johnson is currently a supervisor for the Dodge County Board and a grad student at Regent University. Johnson and his wife of 37 years reside in Horicon, Wisconsin.