Carl Johnson was recognized as the 2019 Volunteer of the Year by our Service to the Armed Forces team.

By Gordon Williams 

One reason why the Northwest Region of the American Red Cross publishes this blog is to honor the volunteers who serve the organization. More than 90 percent of all Red Cross workers — at disaster scenes and elsewhere — are volunteers. They provide the time and talent the Red Cross must have to carry out its mission of helping those in need.  

But this particular blog item does more than just single out the contributions of Carl Robert “Poppy” Johnson — a deeply committed volunteer in the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) function. Johnson supported the Red Cross in much of its work at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the Army-Air Force base near Tacoma. Jason Matheney, director of the SAF program, calls Johnson’s work for the Red Cross “awesome” and “tremendous.” 

Sadly, this item also reports on Johnson’s passing. Johnson, of Lakewood WA, died on January 25th — just a week after his 69th birthday. 

In announcing his death, Alex Dieffenbach, executive director of the Red Cross Northwest region, called Johnson an “incredibly awesome member of our team — one who is going to be missed.”  And Matheny described Johnson as “a beloved team member. We are truly all better for having known Carl and learned from him.”  

Scott Armstrong, Carl Johnson and Alex Dieffenbach at the 2019 Volunteer Recognition event for JBLM.

Service to the Armed Forces is a core function of the Red Cross. The way things are set up today, Red Cross workers in the SAF program serve active duty service members, veterans and their families in three ways: 

  • Emergency Services.  The Red Cross Hero Care Network unites members of military families when there is death or illness or some other emergency. That may involve working with military units to bring a deployed service member back home to deal with the event. 
  • Resiliency Training.  The Red Cross offers training and counseling to help service members and their families adapt to the particular stresses of military life. 
  • Military Hospitals and Health Care Facilities. The military operates medical facilities throughout the world, including Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM. Red Cross volunteers assist in many ways at such military hospitals as Madigan, from working at reception desks to moving patients from place to place. 

It was at Madigan that Poppy Johnson performed most of his volunteer work for the Red Cross. His working title was “military hospital lead.” Fleshing out the details, Metheney says, “He was renowned throughout the hospital for his knowledge and his passion in supporting service members.”  

Madigan, with 205 bedrooms and a wide range of support facilities, is described as “one of the largest military hospitals on the West Coast of the United States.” It provides medical and surgical care, wellness and prevention services and even veterinary care. It is one of three military hospitals in the U.S. designated as trauma centers. 

Volunteering at Madigan was a perfect fit for Johnson. A veteran himself, Johnson worked at the hospital after he retired from active duty. “As a prior Madigan Hospital employee, he brought a wealth of knowledge to our entire military hospital program,” Matheney says.  

While his basic role at the Red Cross involved the Army hospital, his involvement was far more extensive than that. “Carl was always present at many of the SAF events at Joint Base Lewis McChord,” says Matheney. “He supported all our armed forces programs, whatever they were.” In fact, his passion for service went beyond the Red Cross. “He found joy in not only volunteering for the Red Cross, but in volunteering for other community non-profit organizations. He not only gave back, but gave back with passion,” Matheney says. 

That passion for serving his country went way back. At age five, he was asked by his father what he wanted to be when he grew up. His reply was “a soldier.” He was all that and more. After graduating from high school, he went to the U.S Military Academy at West Point. 

Once commissioned, he married high school sweetheart Sandy Thomas and began a long and colorful military career. During 24 years on active duty, he was both an Airborne Jump Master and an Army Ranger. His service took him all over the world, including a posting in Washington State. He finally retired from the Army in 1995, as a major. 

After retiring, Johnson briefly tried other career paths — selling cars and jewelry for instance. Then his passion for service drew him back to the military, as a Department of Defense civilian. When he retired from that role five years ago, he became a Red Cross volunteer. 

Johnson was interred with full military honors at Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent WA. The notice of his death suggested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of the non-profits close to his heart — the Red Cross, Catholic Community Services’ Nativity House Tacoma and Wolf Haven International. 

The final words celebrating the life of Poppy Johnson come from SAF leader Metheney. “The first week I got to know Carl, he gave me some awesome advice,” Matheney says. “I really looked to Carl for mentorship because he had so much knowledge to give me. It was just amazing to have conversations with him. Over the years our relationship moved from his role as volunteer to friendship. We are truly going to miss Carl and everything that he has done for us.” 

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