An American flag once flown over Afghanistan is displayed in a glass case on a yellow wall in Bob Johnson’s Glenwood Springs home.Underneath, framed certificates from the Army and the Department of Defense praise his recent accomplishments.Bob Johnson has never worn camouflage in battle or donned a military dress uniform. Bob Johnson is a civilian, but his support of the troops is undeniable.
Over the holidays in 2004, Johnson, a realtor for Vicki Lee Green Realtors, was home alone watching television. A program came on about concerts being held for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq.The single dad imagined what it would be like to not see his own son, 2-year-old Bobby, for years, like many soldiers deployed overseas.”I was sitting there, watching TV and thinking they don’t get to see their kids for two to three years,” said Johnson, who moved to Glenwood from Pittsburgh in February 2002. “You can send them DVDs or magazines, but it’s not the same.”That’s why the son of a former Army reservist decided to get involved.Johnson came up with a plan to offer all-expenses-paid weekend vacations to soldiers based out of Fort Carson In Colorado Springs.Once the idea was hatched came the need to raise money.Johnson met with Corrie Gentry, a manager and partner of the Glenwood Canyon Brewpub, who was the first to suggest that in-kind donations for meals, lodging, entertainment transportation and amenities could make the program work.”Originally, I just wanted to raise money and do it that way,” said Johnson, who was accepted into the Naval Academy, but attended the University of Texas in Austin on a track and field scholarship instead. “I asked Corrie if she would consider it and she did. I wanted to secure transportation, so Colorado Mountain Express was next.”Arrangements were made with other local sponsors, ranging from Holiday Inn Express to the Yampah Vapor Caves, to treat soldiers to a worry-free experience away from the stress of military life. The program was aptly named “Operation Vacation.””I just wanted something different, so the family could get away,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for the sponsors, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s about $2,000 for each family to come up.”
Operation Vacation hosted its first soldier, Pfc. Ian Vanderheide, and his wife, Heidi, in August 2005. The Army soldier, who was injured while deployed in Iraq, enjoyed fly-fishing while his wife took in some shopping. Berthod Motors set the couple up with a Cadillac as they enjoyed Glenwood’s scenery, the Hot Springs Pool, the Glenwood Caverns and dinner at the Brewpub.Since the program’s inception, Johnson and his Operation Vacation have welcomed six soldiers and their families to the area.”They have a hard time believing it’s happening to them,” said Johnson. “They all feel the red carpet is rolled out for them.”Although Johnson offers a helping hand when soldiers arrive – even donating an infant car seat to Sgt. Albert Alexander for the weekend his family visited in October – he prefers to give them their space.”I meet them, give them my phone number and an itinerary with a map of Glenwood, and tell them I’m out of their hair unless there’s a problem,” Johnson said. “I communicate with the wives a lot.”He has, however, pitched in and helped with a little baby-sitting for the couples who have young children, while mom and dad get a little time alone.
In December, Johnson and one officer from the Army’s 10th Special Forces discovered they had more in common than just Operation Vacation.Sgt. Steve Gaylord and Johnson struck up conversation and found they both love skiing, community service and family life. Gaylord, who was on his high school ski team in South Lake Tahoe, and Johnson, a former lift operator at Sunlight Mountain Resort, even met up over the holidays to ski Vail.”We talk every now and then. He would actually like to move up here,” Johnson said. “After Operation Vacation, Steve couldn’t talk enough about skiing. He had ski lessons for his (5-year-old) daughter at Sunlight, and she actually made two runs with Dad at the end of the day. He was the proud dad, taking pictures skiing backwards.”Gaylord said Johnson stands out for his dedication to Glenwood Springs – and the military.”There’s just a genuine kindness about him. He’s not just doing this for anyone else but us,” said Gaylord, who joined the Army in March 1999. “It just blew my mind how selfless he is. I think we have a lot in common because of how we live our lives.”Gaylord plans to show Glenwood Springs his family’s appreciation with a certificate to the city.”I can almost see us moving up there after I get out of the service,” Gaylord said. “It wasn’t just because of the program – which is more appreciated than the sponsors will ever know. We met some exceptionally friendly people.”On Jan. 4, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) recognized Johnson with a signed letter from the Dept. of Defense and a certificate of appreciation. He also received an American flag flown over a base in Salerno, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25, 2005, with a signed certificate of its authenticity from Army acting commander Brian Delaplane, a Glenwood native.The military accolades hang in Johnson’s living room, the spot where the Operation Vacation idea was born. Johnson said he hopes the program never ends, because there will always be soldiers deployed overseas. “If I have to, I’ll pay $20 out of my pocket for a soldier’s lunch,” he said. “That’s the only reason I keep this going – for the soldiers.”Bob Johnson may be a civilian, but he understands the life of a soldier.Contact April E. Clark: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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