Daniel J Johnson

A Monona Grove High School graduate who joined the Air Force has been killed in Afghanistan, according to a statement released Wednesday from his unit’s base in California.

Dan Johnson, 23, was conducting explosive ordnance disposal operations Tuesday in an area west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device detonated, the statement from Vandenberg Air Force Base said. Johnson was taken to a hospital at Kandahar Air Base, where he died.

Johnson graduated in 2005 after a very active four years at MGHS, said Principal Paul Brost.

“In addition to doing a good job in the classroom, he was a three-sport athlete,” Brost said.

Johnson was on the football, swimming and track teams, acted in a one-act play, was photo editor of the school yearbook and worked on the student newspaper, Brost said.

“I know he had talked about the military because one of our staff members who was a veteran mentored him,” Brost said.

Government teacher Denise Peterson said Johnson and his three brothers were kind, sincere young men whose character was like a glue that held the fabric of the student body together. She said a photo of him in his cap and gown is among a crowd of student pictures on her classroom bulletin board.

“I usually rotate them off after a few years, but there’s a couple of them that are really special, and I don’t take those off,” Peterson said.

She said she wasn’t surprised a few years ago when the FBI contacted her as part of a security check when he was joining an Air Force bomb squad.

“This is the kind of man you want doing complex and important work, and the kind of person who would be chosen by the military to do something difficult and dangerous,” Peterson said. “He would have a strong sense of duty and be the kind of person who would look at the kind of job and say ‘I can do that, so I should do that.'”

Johnson held the rank of senior airman and was part of Vandenberg’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, or bomb squad, a base spokesman confirmed.

Johnson described his duty this way on a MySpace page: “It is definitely the best job in the military getting to blow stuff up and knowing all about explosives.”

Best friend to be deployed

The Johnson family moved to Cottage Grove about 13 years ago, said neighbor and close family friend Ed Gaudet.

Dan Johnson was best friends with Gaudet’s son Gerald, who is now a Marine machine-gunner preparing to ship out for a second tour of Afghanistan.

Gaudet said he and his wife were stricken by the news of Johnson’s death. It has added to their concern about their son upcoming duty in the war zone.

“We’re very concerned,” Gaudet said. “And this just makes it even more. It’ll be tough, it’ll be very rough.”

Johnson was Gerald Gaudet’s best man when he was married in November in Hawaii, where he is based. Gerald Gaudet said he called Johnson as soon as he got back from Afghanistan — and two days before his wedding — to ask Johnson if he’d be the best man. Gaudet said Johnson would do anything for family and friends.

Gerald returned the favor in June when Johnson wed his sweetheart, Kristen, in Santa Maria, Calif., near the base his unit calls home.

“They were talking about how they would be together in Afghanistan,” Ed Gaudet said of his son and Johnson.

Johnson’s parents divorced in 2004 and have moved out of Cottage Grove, Gaudet said. The State Journal wasn’t able to reach them or Dan Johnson’s widow.

Gaudet’s wife, Dee, said everyone who knew Johnson must feel a great sense of loss. “It’s a pretty black day,” she said.

Monona Grove head football coach Mike Stassi said Johnson was a reserve who played outside linebacker and running back for three years, culminating in the 2004 season when the team went 13-1.

He was a hard worker who never complained, the coach said.

“Sometimes it’s not easy being a scout team type of kid, but you never heard a peep out of him. He just came to work and did he job,” Stassi said.

“We’re just all saddened by this, but we’re very proud of him and all the people who are keeping our freedom,” Stassi said.

“The kid was basically my brother,” he said. “Anything he did or I did, we were doing it together.”

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Age: 23
Incident Location: Kandahar, Afghanistan
Branch: Air Force
Rank: Senior Airman
Unit: 30th Civil Engineer Squadron
Units Base: Vandenberg Air Force Base, California