An Emporia native who has chosen to serve his country in the armed services has returned to his position at the Southside Regional Jail.
Capt. Anthony Johnson, attached to the U.S. Army National Guard, returned from his third deployment to the Middle East in June, but wasn’t back in Virginia until the middle of July. He returned to work at the jail last week.
It’s been a long road for Johnson, who grew up in Emporia but dropped out of high school the year he was slated to graduate.
“I was young and stupid,” Johnson said of the decision to quit school.
He took a variety of jobs after making the choice to leave, including roofing work.
“I learned how to put shingles on a house when I was 12,” Johnson said. “The shingles weighed more than I did.”
While having the skills necessary to make a living was beneficial to Johnson, he said he always knew he would have to go back and complete his education if he wanted to do more with his life, particularly if he wanted to fulfill his interest in the military.
After getting his General Education Diploma, Johnson signed up with the Guard.
“It was something different,” Johnson said. “A friend of mine had joined, so I thought, why not?”
He attended basic training in 1995, and in January 1996 was officially part of the Guard.
He took a three-year break from the Guard, however, and was on this break when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks occurred.
He rejoined the Guard in 2004 and was deployed to Iraq that same year. Oddly, his unit was given detainee training and sent to various prisons in Iraq even though they were an artillery unit.
Johnson’s assignment during this time was the now-notorious Abu Ghraib prison, though he was stationed there after all the behavior that led to misconduct allegations occurred.
“We had a lot of briefings (about what had happened there,)” Johnson said. “And when you’re a soldier you choose to live by certain codes and morals. We knew the job was going to be hard because of what had happened before we got there, but we did it.”
Johnson met his future wife while on this assignment, and when he returned to Virginia, his job at the Georgia-Pacific facility in Jarratt was still waiting for him.
However, love prevailed and Johnson moved to New Jersey to be with his then-girlfriend.
“I couldn’t find any work in New Jersey,” Johnson recalled.
After looking for something to do for a while, Johnson was told by his brother there was an opening at the Southside Regional Jail, but Johnson wasn’t interested at first.
“I told myself after my deployment in Iraq that I would never do this kind of work again,” Johnson said. “I didn’t feel like it was something I could do every day.”
When Johnson was interviewed and hired, by virtue of his experience in the military working with detainees, he was given a vacant Sergeant’s position in March 2006.
“I had to get used to this facility,” Johnson said. “The policies the procedures. Things are done differently over here than they were over there. Just filling out forms and reports is different. Military writing is a little different than what you do on the civilian side.”
He was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008, then he got deployed again to Iraq, this time driving trucks.
“I didn’t think (the second deployment) was as frustrating for me as it was for the people who worked with me,” Johnson said. “But they were very supportive. That always makes it easier. Some soldiers don’t get that. They come back from a deployment and they don’t have a job.”
As for his changing role in the military, going from artillery to detainee training to delivering everything from food to ammunition in trucks, Johnson has a healthy outlook.
“I always say learn as much as you can,” Johnson said. “Once you learn something, it’s yours, and nobody can take it away from you.”
Johnson was promoted to Captain in 2010, then was deployed to the Middle East again in Sept. 2015, this time to Qatar.
“That deployment was different,” Johnson said. “It was more political and less dangerous.”
Now having returned, Johnson is trying to get back in the swing of things at the jail, and is looking forward to serving the rest of his career at the facility.
“I want to pay them back for all the support they’ve given me,” Johnson said.
As for plans following retirement, Johnson hopes to perhaps open a gun shop — he’s a certified gunsmith — while drawing retirement from the Guard and the state. In the meantime, he wants to continue to try to help those who come through the doors at the jail and maintain his perspective on serving on dangerous deployments abroad and hazardous assignment with the jail.
“You’re safe wherever you are,” Johnson said. “When it’s your time to go, when God decides He’s ready to bring you home, He’s going to take you home.”