Co-workers hold warm reception for returning soldier

By Michael Davis

Last June, they sent him off to war with fanfare – hotdogs, apple pie and prayers. Monday, they "received" him back.

Maj. Gen. William H. "Bil" Johnson returned from active duty in Kuwait last week, got a boost in rank, a new assignment, and Monday, a day all his own, complete with barbecue, banners and a color guard.

Johnson, of Morrow, returned to his employer, Encompass Group, a McDonough-based medical textiles manufacturing and distributing company Monday with a welcome-home celebration. Bed sheets were hung from stocking shelves on the company's loading dock with messages like "It's great to receive you back" and "Let Freedom Ring."

"We turned up the heat so we could give you guys an idea of the heat in Kuwait," Encompass' Brian Farrell, who took on Johnson's role of director of purchasing and sourcing, told the crowd of about 100 before a barbecue lunch in his honor.

McDonough Mayor Richard Craig proclaimed Monday "Bil Johnson Day" and presented him with a key to the city.

Johnson, 55, spent 14 months on duty in Kuwait, coordinating supply chains and logistics for America's efforts in Iraq. About once a month, he said, he went on convoys into hostile Iraqi territory. "We tried to do in Kuwait, everything we could so our soldiers in Iraq could focus on the mission," he told his co-workers. He said he lost six soldiers under his command.

Johnson, a 33-year reservist, was promoted to the rank of major general upon his return last week, and given command of the 99th Regional Readiness Command based in Pennsylvania, though his territory covers that state, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

As a reservist, Johnson will remain in his position at Encompass while serving as commander of the 99th. He'll spend this week working in McDonough, and most of next week on post in Pennsylvania. "We have to depend on our employers to support us because we're what we call 'twice the citizen,'" Johnson said. "It's tough for any reserve soldier because we have to balance not only family and career, but military career."

But Johnson, an avid runner, got a little taste of home July 4. Organizers of the Peachtree Road Race sponsored hundreds of runners who put on their own versions of the annual event in Kuwait, Iraq and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Via cell-phone, Johnson got the go-command to fire the starting pistol in Kuwait from race organizers in Atlanta and ran in his 26th race.

His employers and co-workers were sorry to see him go, but glad to have him back, even in a limited consulting capacity. "When you lose somebody of Bil's stature in our organization, it's on every one of us," to take up the slack, Encompass Chief Operating Officer Dave Huelsbeck told employees. "Because Bil was doing a bigger and better calling, we all had to step in."

Johnson's new assignment to the 99th will last four years. He said he looked for adoption of the proposed Iraqi constitution in the near future, and then democratic elections and more Iraqi self-rule. "We're training vigorously to make sure Iraqi forces can take up the fight of the insurgency themselves," he said.