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NEWS | Sept. 28, 2021

Civil affairs NCO returning from Djibouti douses airport blaze

By Rick Scavetta 353rd Civil Affairs Command

Sgt. 1st Class Brett Johnson, a quick-thinking U.S. Army Reserve Soldier just back from deployment to East Africa, doused a fire at a Washington, District of Columbia, airport terminal.

Johnson, a firefighter from Lynn, Massachusetts, was returning stateside from a nine-month deployment to Djibouti with his unit, Company A, 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion. While at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, on his way to Fort Hood, Texas, he smelled smoke.

He and Master Sgt. Mike Maglio, a fellow firefighter from Lawrence, Massachusetts, walked over to see what was happening. An electric scooter was on fire, and several people were standing nearby.

“People were standing around not knowing what to,” said Johnson. “I told everyone to move away.”

Johnson found a fire extinguisher nearby and emptied it on the scooter. After he doused the flames, airport security screeners thanked him for his efforts. The NCOs didn’t have a lot of time. They grabbed their duffle bags and boarded a flight to Texas.

“I saw something that needed to be done and did it,” Johnson said.

In Lynn, Johnson fights larger fires, some that quickly consume century-old wooden homes. In 2015, he was recognized for valor, saving people from just such a blaze. A firefighter for the past decade, Johnson, 32, served in the National Guard before transferring to the U.S. Army Reserve in 2019. Previous overseas deployments included tours in Afghanistan and training missions to Macedonia and Senegal.

His move to civil affairs was based a desire to “make an impact somewhere,” he said. He recently got that chance working in Africa. His unit, a down-trace unit within the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, was part of Civil Affairs East Africa, a forward-deployed element of Southern European Task Force, Africa that supports Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.

In Djibouti, Company A’s missions were initially hampered by COVID-19. Arriving in October 2020, the pandemic was in full swing, said Maj. Kevin Jusza, the company commander. In the months to follow, they restarted civil affairs operations, relying on the experience of the unit’s noncommissioned officers, he added. Working with the CJTF-HOA and U.S. Embassy in Djibouti, the troops increased their connectivity to the local population.

“We slowly worked our way back out and started missions,” Jusza said.

They worked closely with the Djiboutian military and their French counterparts, eventually supporting 300 missions. Some Soldiers also took part in missions Mali, Kenya and Mozambique.

Coming home, Jusza, a police sergeant in Manchester, New Hampshire, was not surprised to hear of Johnson’s efforts, knowing his civilian firefighting skills.

“It’s a nice highlight to end a unique and successful deployment,” Jusza said. “Success from beginning to end.”