What started as a way to honor one fallen hero has become a way to honor more than 8,000.
When she and her husband retired Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Johnson were stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from 2004 to 2007, her boys made quick friends with a kid from the neighborhood, Tim Vimoto. The families became close, but the military sent the Vimotos to Italy and the Johnsons to Hawaii.
Tim grew up and, following in his father's footsteps (all the way into his brigade), joined the Army. In June 2007, Pfc. Timothy R. Vimoto was killed in action by insurgents in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. He'd been boots on the ground for only three months. The Johnsons were devastated.
For a long time, Johnson thought about how her family could honor Tim's loss in a bigger way. When Johnson's middle son joined the military in 2010, she began realizing the immense toll the losses of life were taking on her husband, his soldiers, her son and his friends.
In 2012, she had the opportunity to run in the "Tunnel to Towers" 5k memorial run in New York City.
"It was so emotional," Johnson recalled, "and I wanted something like that for our fallen. I wanted something to honor Tim and to create a sort of healing garden for the battle buddies and families to come and to process their grief and to heal."
With the help of a good friend, Anita Clingerman, and the blessing of her husband, Johnson had the idea to set a boot out for every service member who had died since 9/11, along with their name, a photo and service details. She includes troops who have died by suicide, in training accidents or of illnesses.
"It's not about how they died," Johnson said. "It's about how they lived and their service."
The free event was held the week of 9/11 in 2012 on Ford Island in Hawaii and became an annual community event and a place of healing.
"I wanted it to be everything symbolic of when a fallen hero comes home," Johnson said. "We had a motorcycle escort to go alongside the runners. I put boots along the route to show the longevity of war. At the end of the run is a sea of boots, and the collection really makes you feel the enormity of loss."
Bragg was always her goal as that's where the Vimoto family was stationed. "I wanted to take it there so that Tim's family could be a part of it."
At each location, Johnson puts out a call to the community to help. She relies on volunteers to prepare the boots with a flag, photo and personal details that she and her friend, Candice Ualesi, put together.
As for where she finds the 8,200 boots now required for each memorial, Johnson has relied on donations. The boots are placed in storage at each location after an event, and she puts out a call for additional ones as more are required.
"I want the dirty ones, the ones that tell a story," she said. "I want people to know that miles have been walked in those shoes in combat, and friends have been lost. Friends come in and donate boots in honor of their battle buddies. It makes it that much more powerful."
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