Anthony Redmon, who served with Micah Johnson in the Army posted this photo on Facebook and wrote: “This is the Dallas Cop Killer. I knew this dude. Damn. I served with him for 4 years in the 284 ENG BN. He was a little off…but I thought he was just young and dumb. You never know a person. Scary.”
By BRITTNEY MARTIN, KEVIN KRAUSE and STEVE THOMPSON
Micah Johnson left Texas for Afghanistan at 22, outgoing and eager to be a part of something important.
Eight months later, Johnson returned home a different man, ostracized by many of his comrades and increasingly alone.
Aside from the strain of war, Johnson’s time overseas included a pivotal episode that started with a female soldier’s underwear and ended with a sexual harassment allegation.
Accounts from friends and fellow soldiers differ on whether the incident was a sign of mental instability or the outgrowth of a troubled romantic relationship. But no one seems satisfied with the way the Army handled the case, either in the war zone or back in Texas.
Did Johnson fail the Army? Or did the Army fail him?
The Army has refused to answer questions about Johnson and, soldiers say, has ordered them not to talk. The Dallas Morning News interviewed several soldiers on the condition that their names not appear, talked to longtime friends and also received an on-the-record account from a retired squad leader who said he was speaking on behalf of many in Johnson’s unit.
The Pentagon says it has launched a review of Johnson’s military service amid questions about whether his discharge, which his parents say was honorable, was appropriate given the harassment complaint. It also comes as some who served with Johnson question whether they and their commanders let him down after his return from the war.
Nothing could justify what Johnson did on July 7 in Dallas, gunning down five police officers. But understanding his path before that could help prevent future tragedies.
“I’m feeling sad that I didn’t check up on him as much as I should,” said a soldier who served with him. “His leadership definitely should’ve checked up on him. All of us have said that the leadership failed him.”
Ready to serve
In September 2013, at an Army Reserve center in Seagoville, Johnson’s unit stood in formation wearing camouflage fatigues, hands behind their backs. Family members had come to see the 284th Engineer Company off as they prepared to deploy to Afghanistan.
“The bottom line is we will get home together,” their captain, Michael Coyle, assured them. “No matter how you came to be here, you’re now here and one of us.”
For a time overseas, that would be true for Johnson, whom friends describe as goofy but lovable.
As a carpentry and masonry specialist, Johnson helped his unit build military structures at a forward operating base called Shank, in Logar province. They weren’t in combat, but they worked in physical danger. Soldiers called the base “Rocket City,” after the mortar rounds that rained down.
Johnson hung out with a tight group of friends he’d trained with, a clique that was mostly white and Hispanic, according to his former sergeant. Among them was the woman who would eventually accuse him of sexual harassment. She has declined to speak to The News, citing instructions from the Army concerning its current review.
Accounts diverge on what kind of relationship Johnson and the woman shared. Justin Garner, a high school buddy who joined the Army Reserves with Johnson in 2009, said he had been a little jealous of Johnson’s close relationship with the woman. “So I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t like him that way. I don’t like anybody in the military.'”
Garner left the Army before Johnson deployed.
More than friends?
But two soldiers who knew Johnson in Afghanistan, who were reached and interviewed separately, said it was an open secret that the pair had a romantic relationship and were publicly affectionate.
In an interview with TheBlaze website, Johnson’s mother, Delphene, implied they were more than friends.
“Before, when they went to drill, during the drill weekends, she stayed here,” she said. “Yeah, they slept in the same bed.”
Gilbert Fischbach, a former Army sergeant who was Johnson’s squad leader, says that the woman has denied being intimate with Johnson and that he believes the two were just close friends.
But, he said, the nature of their relationship doesn’t matter — he was found with her underwear without her permission.
Fischbach did not deploy with Johnson. But in an account he said is based on discussions with noncommissioned officers who did, Fischbach said the woman complained that clothing was missing from her clean laundry. As the command launched an investigation, Johnson was seen trying to dispose of her underwear; he refused to say how he had obtained it, Fischbach said.
“Her trust was now betrayed by this guy that she had been best friends with for four years,” said Fischbach, who has remained in contact with the woman.
The two soldiers who knew Johnson said he told them the underwear incident was the outgrowth of a rocky romantic relationship. They said they thought the episode was overblown.
The incident marked the beginning of a new period in Johnson’s life. Under investigation by his commanders and facing a messy split with a good friend, he faced something perhaps worse: being shunned by many of those with whom he’d deployed.
“Everybody thought that he was just a person that stole panties,” a soldier said. “He broke down after that a little bit because they ostracized him. All of his friends started unfollowing him on Facebook. They wouldn’t deal with him, they wouldn’t talk to him.”
“He started hanging out with people he usually didn’t hang out with — the black people, honestly,” said the soldier, who is black.
Both of Johnson’s Army buddies who spoke with The News said he was transferred to Bagram Airfield from Shank after the sexual harassment complaint was filed, to separate him from the accuser.
Bradford Glendening, a military attorney who practices near Fort Hood, served as Johnson’s advocate in the proceedings. Glendening said the woman asked that Johnson receive mental help and for a protective order against him “pertaining to myself, my family, home, restaurant, and any other place of residence I may reside.”
Johnson was separated from his company because of the complaint and was sent home in July 2014, Glendening toldThe News.
More and more, everyone agrees, Johnson began keeping to himself. No one had returned unscarred, his friends said.
“In Afghanistan, you’re constantly on high alert and constantly have to watch your back,” one said. “To come back and have to adjust — just like that, with the snap of a finger — is hard. Some people just didn’t adjust.”
What Johnson did during the months after Afghanistan is not widely known. He lived with his mother, often driving her black Chevy Tahoe. He worked out at a Richardson martial arts center, the Academy of Combative Warrior Arts. He got paid for taking care of his autistic brother.
His parents said he wasn’t the outgoing son they’d known. Now he didn’t go out much.
“He was here at the house,” his mother told TheBlaze. “Or wherever he was, he was by himself.”
Many of the people he friended on Facebook now say they never met him and believe he reached out to them because of his growing interest in black nationalism. At the time of the shootings, Johnson was friends with few of his fellow soldiers on Facebook and no one from his immediate family.
Let off too easy?
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how the military’s investigation into the sexual harassment allegation concluded.
According to Glendening, Johnson’s Army advocate, his superiors recommended an “other than honorable” discharge, the most severe type a soldier can receive that doesn’t rise to the level of a court martial proceeding.
But Glendening said that on his recommendation, in September 2014, Johnson waived his right to a hearing in order to receive a less severe discharge, a “general discharge under honorable conditions.”
Glendening said Johnson’s commander told him that would happen, and Johnson typically would have been discharged immediately.
But Pentagon records show Johnson’s service didn’t end until April 2015. Pentagon officials haven’t said which type of discharge Johnson received.
In any case, those close to Johnson say, the Army did little or nothing to check up on someone it had trained to kill, and who had shown signs of mental distress. At one point, he sought help from the VA for a back injury, according to his mother. But he became overwhelmed by the hassle and paperwork and gave up. Fischbach, the squad leader, also questions the Army’s follow-up.
To him, it appears the Army let Johnson off too easy. As part of the deal to avoid an “other than honorable” discharge, Johnson also escaped an intensive mental assessment, Fischbach says.
One of the soldiers interviewed by The News reported talking to Johnson about a year after they returned from Afghanistan.
“I was like, ‘How are you doing? Has anybody called to check up on you?'” the soldier recalls. “He said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve heard from in the unit.'”
Research director Erin Sood and staff writers Scott Farwell, Sue Ambrose, Dave Tarrant, Miles Moffeit, Conor Shine, Jill Cowan, Holly Hacker and Naomi Martin contributed to this story.