But he is also part of another mission: He’s trying to encourage fellow Veterans and members of the Armed Forces with physical disabilities to get involved in sports to help open doors to new activities, enrich their lives and get them moving forward.
The “Mission Redefined” campaign, a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Paralympics, released a 30-second public service announcement on Jan. 15 that features Johnston sprinting down a track.
Johnston says it’s a campaign he’s proud to be a part of, and believes it’s necessary to help disabled Veterans see what’s possible.
“When they get out of the military, they don’t really know where to go,” he said. “They don’t know how to get reconnected with their community, with life, so sports are a great way of bridging that gap.”
Johnston knows firsthand about making the transition from being injured in the military to becoming an athlete.
In 2003, Johnston, then in the Navy, lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident. Yet he was able go through rehabilitation, learn to walk with a prosthesis and return to active duty.
His life had gone through a traumatic change, but by staying in the Navy for another seven years he was able to adjust while in a familiar environment.
“I was expected to do the same duties as everybody else and that I previously had been doing,” he said.
But it wasn’t easy.
“After I was injured, I wasn’t even 21 yet, so I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to achieve in my life and I had very little direction,” he recalled.
After going through rehabilitation and learning to use his prosthesis (his leg was amputated just below the knee), he began to challenge himself.
What were his limits? What could he do physically? He wanted to not only test himself but prove to others that assumptions of limitations were wrong.
“(It) gave me a drive and determination to break those perceptions, you know, that ‘This guy’s going to slow us down’ and whatnot, of physical limitations that people associate with a lot of amputees and disabilities in general,” he said.
Eventually, he got involved in sports through the Navy’s Operation Rebound program and also the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
In 2008, he began competing in paratriathlons, and he’s competed internationally for the U.S. Paratriathlon National Team. In 2011, he finished fourth at the ITU Paratriathlon World Championship in Beijing.
Becoming an athlete has helped Johnston redefine his own life.
Now he is trying to help others redefine theirs.
The PSA begins with Johnston at the starting line. At the sound of a starter’s pistol, Johnston bursts from the blocks.
As the camera captures him in full stride, the words “Passion,” “Power,” and then “Strength” appear in place of his churning left leg, until “Strength” explodes and falls away, revealing Johnston’s racing prosthesis. As he sprints away, the words “Mission Redefined” appear on screen and a narrator says, “Redefine your mission. Find a sport, get involved.” The spot ends with the Mission ReDefined and U.S. Paralympics logos.
Viewers can then go to Department of Veterans Affairs Adaptive Sports site to find affiliated sports clubs around the nation in which they can get involved.
As Johnston reflects on the weeks and months after his injury in 2003, he believes the “Mission Redefined” campaign would have been inspirational.
“It would definitely move me and hopefully inspire me to get out and re-engage in sports and life again,” he said, recalling that he felt lost at the time.
The message with this campaign, he said, is that people and programs are out there to help Veterans get moving, and being active — finding a sport or activity — is a terrific step. But the message, he said, is even simpler.
“The big push I have is just getting involved,” said Johnston, now living in San Diego. “Just getting off the couch and being reconnected.”
Christopher Nowak, VA’s director of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events, is in charge of the “Mission Redefined” campaign. Nowak, a Marine Corps Veteran who lost his right leg while serving, started work on the campaign in 2011.
To Nowak, Mission Redefined has multiple meanings.
“One is the VA itself,” Nowak said. “We’re redefining our mission on how we deliver adaptive sports to Veterans as well as sporting opportunities. And also we’re using the campaign for Veterans. There’s an opportunity to redefine their mission in life. They’ve been through a traumatic injury and this is an opportunity for them to use sports to redefine their mission.”
The campaign’s name works, he said, because to men and women in the military, “everything is defined as a mission.”
“What we hope with this campaign is that Veterans understand that after a traumatic injury life is not over. It may seem like it, they all go through it, as well as I did,” he said. “You go through a certain phase in your life after your injury. But something clicks in” to get them back on track, he said, and sports can be a giant part of that process.
This campaign, combined with the success and attention garnered by some of the military Veterans competing at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, is providing a whole new layer of attention and information for Veterans, Nowak said.
And working with the U.S. Olympic Committee as a partner, he said, has helped the VA “get out of the box” and push the message in the most effective way possible.
For Johnston, who was involved in filming the PSA— doing countless takes until 2 or 3 in the morning on a high school track north of Los Angeles — the joint V.A./U.S. Paralympic campaign is worth every penny.
“Anybody that sees it will connect with it,” he said. “It breaks down all borders. It’s not just amputees, not just military. Everybody will connect with forward movement.”
You can view and share the new PSA here.
Williams is a freelance writer in San Diego, and writes for a number of publications, including ESPN, NBC, the San Diego Union-Tribune, USParalympics.org, TeamUSA.org and USA Hockey. Previously, he was sports editor of the Union-Tribune.