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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Marine thanks students for support - gainesvilletimes.com

Marine thanks students for support
While on leave, Johnston visits Chestnut Mountain Elementary
The Times

A Chestnut Mountain Marine was on a mission Friday: Seek out those who showed him support during his seven-month tour of duty in Iraq.

Pfc. Justin Johnston found them at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School.

The 20-year-old visited a group of second-graders to thank them and their teacher, Lori Whitmire, for writing letters to him while he was overseas.

Whitmire's class last year also sent letters to Johnston.

Johnston, currently on a three-day leave, was shot in the hip April 22 while he was on patrol in Fallujah.

About six months later, he fielded students' questions like "Did it hurt?"

"My mind went blank," said Justin Johnston, who has since recovered fully. "It was like being hit by a 2-by-4 and then burnt with the red-hot tip of a cigar."

While he was at the school, Johnston ran into teachers he had when he was a student at Chestnut Mountain.

"It's amazing," said Betsy Elrod, a physical education teacher at the school since 1991. "I can't believe one of my students has been in a war and been shot."

At the time, he was on patrol with about 20 Ma-rines near Fallujah. The bullet penetrated his right hip and put him out of action for about six weeks, he said.

"Our company was one of the first into hell on earth," Johnston said after speaking to the students.

He said his patrol was in tall grass about 650 yards from Fallujah when they came under attack from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire.

"A medic checked my wound and told me to make my way back on my own," Johnston said. "I had my weapon in one hand and my pants in the other. They were still shooting at me."

Judy Johnston, Justin's mom, said a Marine officer called her home, initially saying he had been hit by shrapnel.

His father, Joey Johnston, was on a business trip to Southeast Asia at the time. Later, they learned that their son had been shot.

According to the U.S. military 1,064 American soldiers have died in Iraq since the war started last March.

Johnston arrived at the school about an hour after he landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Earlier in the week, he returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where his unit is based."When I saw him step off the bus, it was the best day I've had," Judy Johnston said.

Monday, Justin Johnston said he will return to Camp Lejeune. A combat leave would allow him to return home Oct. 22, he said
Marine thanks students for support - gainesvilletimes.com

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