By Lance Cpl. Christofer P. Baines, Headquarters Marine Corps
Project Guardian Angel officially began July 27, 2010, weeks after Johnson received non-judicial punishment for driving under the influence. Johnson immediately took responsibility for his mistake and set out to prevent the same thing from happening to other Marines.
He first experienced the repercussions of drunk driving at age 13, when he tragically lost his father in an accident caused by a drunk driver. With tragedy and a wake-up call behind him, he pushed forward and sought to prevent Marines from making the same mistake.
“When my father was hit by a drunk driver and killed, I was immediately mad, thinking someone meant to get behind the wheel drinking and driving,” said Johnson, who serves as an automotive organizational mechanic with Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. “I have come to believe, and I truly believe, it’s not always that intention. Sometimes they have three or four and think they’re good to go – they honestly believe they’re good to drive. That’s the thing about alcohol, that’s why you need someone there personally to hold you accountable, because when you have that first drink you’re not the same person you were five minutes before. Alcohol can be a good and relaxing thing, but if you don’t control it you can ruin your life.”
With his ideas and determined mindset, Johnson set out to create Project Guardian Angel. From the ground up, he did everything from purchasing breathalyzers to getting the organization filed with the Internal Revenue Service as a non-profit organization, and he did it all in a quiet, humble manner.
“I was in awe of what he was able to put together in such a short amount of time,” said Lt. Col. Susan B. Seamen, battalion commander, Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. “He did this very quietly, with no fanfare and his own money. It took us a while to find out about it.”
After his efforts were noticed, his superiors recognized his hard work by nominating him for the award.
“He’s taken something that could’ve been a negative and turned it into a significant positive,” said Brig. Gen. Steven Busby, director, Joint Capabilities Assessment and Integration Directorate, who presented the award at the ceremony in Arlington, Va. “He and his team takes care of those who are out and about enjoying themselves – maybe sometimes a little too much – who would otherwise make poor decisions. He and his team are there to help them make the right decision.”
Though he knew he was nominated nine months prior to the ceremony, he didn’t know he was chosen for the award until he received a surprising phone call from the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent.
“I didn’t find out I won till Sgt. Maj. Kent called me on my cell phone. I thought it was a joke at first but he called me the next day,” said Johnson. “It was a humbling experience in itself.”
Since its inception, Project Guardian Angel has grown to a volunteer base of more than 5,000 in only nine months, and has helped more than 1,000 men and women make the right decision when it comes to getting behind the wheel.
“We have tried to pull up statistics on Jacksonville, like DUIs this year compared to last year,” he said. “The only way we can really track it is the reflection of people that use our system, or just come up to us for a breathalyzer. We measure success by knowing we helped that handful of people at a time.”
The program is based upon the ideal of educating potential drunk drivers on their personal alcohol tolerance and the consequences getting behind the wheel when they’re over the limit. It offers rides to those who have no other option, though a common misconception is that free rides are the goal of the program.
“We are not a taxi service at all,” said Johnson. “We’re purely educational. Our logo is ‘no more excuses’ – the vans are a last resort, if you do need a ride, we’re not going to let you drive drunk.”
Funding and equipment now comes from sponsors, volunteers and through their website, www.projectguardianangel.com. Through his initiative and hard work, Project Guardian Angel is growing. Leader’s Corpswide have even noticed the effective approach of the program, seeking to implement it in other Marine Corps installations.
“We will definitely be in every Marine Corps base by the end of 2012,” said Johnson.
Emulating the core values of honor, courage and commitment, and turning the negative to positive, Johnson has created something that has benefited his fellow Marines, as well as his community.
“We can’t be anything but proud to serve in the same organization as Cpl. Johnson,” said Seamen. “He possesses strong moral character, is a born leader and not easily defeated. Marines everywhere are proud of him.”