LIMA — Being a Lima native, a military base in Iraq was probably one of the last places Command Sgt. Maj. Clifton Johnson expected to meet someone who was born and raised so close to where he grew up, even if it were one of the area’s most famous people.
Yet, there he was, getting pictures taken and striking a friendship up with Wapakoneta native and space pioneer Neil Armstrong.
With big moments like that having become almost routine in Johnson’s storied career and life, it’s safe to say he has come a very long way.
Johnson attended South and Perry before graduating from Lima Senior High School in 1980. He played basketball at Northwestern Business College before enlisting in the Army in 1983.
From there, he’s led a lengthy career that includes three stints in Iraq and one in Kuwait. Each time he was in Iraq, he was in charge of more than 10,000 troops. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 2008, and he finished his most recent tour in April 2011.
His role as a brigade-level command sergeant major is one of the highest ranks one can achieve as a noncommissioned officer. Today, he is in charge of the Army’s largest noncommissioned officer academy at Fort Lee, N.J.
“I was in Washington this past week, visiting all of the war memorials, and I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York just a couple of months ago,” Johnson said. “Those are the reasons why I continue to do what I do. It’s about keeping America free and it’s about the desire that I have to know that every American is safe.”
Johnson says he didn’t always plan on joining the military, but decided to enlist after his brother began his service. Johnson’s brother got out of the military in 1995 after the murder of their father, but Johnson has remained in the Army to this day.
Despite traveling so far from home, Johnson still feels a strong connection to his roots in northwest Ohio. His mother and seven siblings still live in Lima, and he visits them every year. He says that remembering where he came from still hits him, just like it did two weeks ago when he sat down to have dinner with Virginia Gov. Bob McDowell in McDowell’s home.
“I just thought, ‘Wow,’” Johnson said. “It makes me feel really great about what I’ve done. Touring Iraq was tough, being away from family and seeing the things you see. But when you have a place like Lima in the back of your memory, it gives you a certain drive to keep doing what you’re doing.”