Army Spc. Jason M. Johnston
24, of Albion, N.Y.; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.; died Dec. 26 in Arghandab, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.
(Taken from www.buffalonews.com of Dec. 28, 2009) The war on terrorism hit home — and hard — in Orleans County last weekend.
People in and around Albion learned Sunday of the death of Spc. Jason M. Johnston, 24, of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, who was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday.
Family members, before heading to Dover, Del., on Sunday to claim his remains, said he was killed by a roadside bomb.
The war in Afghanistan thus became a local issue for the approximately 8,000 people of the Town of Albion, which is about 35 miles northeast of Buffalo.
"It's the first line-of-duty death that we can recall locally since, I believe, Vietnam," Albion Fire Chief Eric C. Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw and others said they believe that included all of Orleans County, with a population of about 42,000. They seemed more certain that it has been 35 to 40 years, or more, since Albion had suffered such a wartime loss.
Everyone already knew about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they understand the death toll, in real flesh-and-blood terms.
"You read about it in the paper, you talk to people about it, and you watch it on TV, so you're aware what's going on," Bradshaw said Monday. "But this brings the whole war effort right into your lap. It brings it home."
In a town the size of Albion, it's not just a cliche that virtually everybody knows everyone else, or at least their family.
"In a small town like this, people come together," said Stanley A. Farone, president of the Albion Fire Department. "The support is unbelievable. Even people who didn't know the family are coming forward."
Johnston, who reportedly enlisted in the Army at age 19 and was in his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, had a special tie to Albion — through its volunteer Fire Department.
He spent about three years in the department's Explorer Post 674, as sort of junior firefighter, earning high marks as a hard worker who was both respectful and responsible.
His father, Brad, has spent more than 20 years as a volunteer firefighter. His mother, Jenny, has been an emergency medical technician for the department and currently serves as its secretary. And his younger sister, Heather, is a member of the Explorer post.
"It's a very tightknitcq group," Albion Mayor Dean A. Theodorakos said Monday. "A lot of guys look at it as a second family."
While the Defense Department still hadn't confirmed Johnston's death as of late Monday afternoon, it didn't take long for word to spread through the small community, starting Sunday morning.
And it took only hours for the Fire Department to do something about it.
At noon Sunday, just hours after the news started spreading, firefighters got on their trucks for a red-light procession to the department's memorial in Mount Albion Cemetery, where they held a brief ceremony, observing a moment of silence and lowering the American flag to half-staff.
About 35 to 40 firefighters attended on extremely short notice.
Monday night, the department planned a brief special meeting — to make Jason Johnston an honorary member. In doing so, the firefighters planned to send a strong message to the Johnston family.
"We want the family to know that the Fire Department is here to support the family as much as we can," Farone said. "And when he comes home, we plan to give him the hero's welcome he deserves."
Even in bigger cities with paid firefighters, such as Buffalo, people talk about a Fire Department as a brotherhood/sisterhood, as a member's second family.
That feeling may be even stronger in a department of volunteers.
"I think one of the main reasons people volunteer is that tightness, that familylike environment," Theodorakos said. "I think they do take care of [one another]."
The death of a soldier will be big news, from Buffalo to Rochester, for several days, at least until the Johnston funeral. But it will remain big news in Orleans County, the Town of Albion and its Fire Department for a lot longer.
"It's emptiness," Farone said. "It's just a big loss to the community and something we won't get over quickly — the Fire Department or the community."