A Whirlwind with Purpose

By Tony Phifer

Many college students take some time off after graduating, celebrating their achievement with a well-earned vacation or simply a break after spending several years pursuing their diploma.

Josh Johnson

Those who cannot afford a vacation generally take at least a few days to breathe before entering the work force or pursing a job.

Josh Johnson isn’t any of those people.

Johnson, a student veteran who graduated from Colorado State University in May with a degree in political science, either doesn’t know how to rest or simply declines to do so. He was operating at full throttle for three years at CSU – heading up the nation’s No. 1 Student Veterans chapter, serving as an ASCSU senator, competing for the University’s triathlon team, running for ASCSU president, and a few dozen other activities in between. And he hasn’t stopped some six months later, cramming as much into each day as he possibly can.

“Getting involved, rowing the boat, and adding value to those around me is the way I choose to live,” he said. “I like to keep busy, keep moving. And I like to help people.”

He’s currently in Montgomery, Alabama, completing his training at Air Force First Sergeant’s Academy. An Air Force veteran, he had planned to retire from his airfield manager position with the Colorado Air National Guard before getting selected  to become the next First Sergeant and promoted to Master Sergeant, which included the opportunity to lead several others.

But the Air National Guard gig is only one weekend per month for weekend warriors, although Johnson admits that he slips down to Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora for another two to three days each month. So, he needed something else to fill the time. Or, in his case, a couple of other something elses.

Marc Barker, director of CSU’s Adult Learner and Veterans Services office, had watched and admired Johnson’s whirlwind style for three years and knew he would be an asset on campus. So, when he was named last spring by President Joyce McConnell to be part of CSU’s pandemic response team, Barker knew he wanted Johnson on his team.

Johnson started working with Tom Hickey, assistant emergency coordinator at CSU, to set up 551 hand sanitizing stations on campus. Johnson makes sure each station is stocked and operational – no easy task when you consider the heavy use the stations are getting from students, faculty and staff.

“As we were transitioning into the fall and knowing how critical those sanitizer stations and PPE stations were going to be to keeping our campus open we quickly realized what a Herculean effort it would take to keep those stations stocked and functioning,” Barker said. “This is not glamorous work by any stretch, but we knew Josh was coming back to campus in August after his National Guard assignment, and we knew he would be ideal for this position.

“Honestly, this is such a daunting and yet critical job that we were looking at hiring three people to handle it – or we could hire one: Josh. In true Josh fashion he built a process using spread sheets so that he could track what was happening at every station, and it’s been a seamless operation every day since then.”

When he’s not busy helping keep the campus safe, Johnson’s working on his other new job: statewide veterans outreach director. In that job, which will have him working with veterans of all ages and not just those on campuses, he’s tasked with implementing Barker’s value-based model for working with veterans, playing to their strengths as opposed to perceived weaknesses.

He’s putting together a Veterans Career Placement Workshop for 2021, matching industry employers and recruiters with veterans who want to learn how to get a job, or at least an interview, with companies specifically looking to hire veterans. The plan is to connect with veterans in every Colorado county.

Again, another daunting task.

“This is a program that will elevate CSU to the next level among veterans programs around the country, especially among land grant institutions,” Barker said of the program, funded primarily by the Anschutz Foundation. “There was no doubt about who we needed on the ground to lead this effort and that was Josh. Honestly, I’ve never known anyone quite like him. He has a motor that doesn’t stop, and it’s inherently geared toward helping meaningful causes. He’s a young man that at a very young age can find the positives in any situation and find a path forward to success very quickly.”

Johnson learned many of the skills he’ll utilize in this new position while working for the Air National Guard. He was sent in April to Cortez, Colorado, to help manage the COVID-19 response in Montezuma County. He spent the next 122 days there, lending aid where he could to the country’s overwhelmed emergency response team.

But then it was back to CSU to help with the pandemic response. And to learn a completely new job serving the state’s veterans. And then spend a month in Alabama training to be a First Sergeant. All while training for his next triathlon.

Did he mention that was set to go to California recently to help manage that state’s wildfire response? You know, just in case he found a free minute or two to spare…