Major Robin Johnson is being tackled by her two children on the playroom floor of the family’s split-level Alexandria home—the kids appear to have the upper hand, and Johnson is loving every second of it. Her son, 19-month-old Colton, is jumping on her lap; daughter Annabelle, four, is tugging on her arm. It’s a battle royal, for sure, but it’s peanuts for Johnson, who has been deployed to Afghanistan once (with the 101st Airborne Division) and to Iraq three times (with the 101st Airborne Division and 3d Combat Aviation Brigade).
“People have asked me how hard it was to go through Airborne, Air Assault, and Pathfinder schools, or how tough my four deployments were,” says Johnson, 38. “I always laugh and say it wasn’t nearly as hard as having two children and being a mom.”
Raised in Ohio, Johnson enlisted in that state’s National Guard when she was 17, then attended Ohio State University, where she earned her commission through ROTC; she entered active duty in the Army in September 1999. “In addition to the deployments, my assignments have been Fort Lee, Korea, Fort Campbell, Fort Lee (again), Hunter Army Airfield, Fort Leavenworth, Fort Hood, and Washington, DC.” For the past six months, Johnson has been relatively settled; her latest role is the coveted assignment of special assistant for military family matters to Martin E. Dempsey, the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She works, for the most part, in the Pentagon, but she travels extensively as part of Dempsey’s primary support team. “I coordinate soldier and family programs and policy with the Joint Staff directorates, combatant commands, National Guard Bureau, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the White House,” says Johnson, who also assists in the planning and coordination of the chairman’s calendar, and that of his wife, Deanie Dempsey, who has an active schedule attending official and diplomatic engagements.
It seems like, well, a lot, but Johnson’s world, and the world of countless other moms in the military—15 percent of US active-duty forces is women—is similar to that of civilian moms, but with the added twist of the unexpected. “It is difficult in the sense that I have to be ready to leave my children for any length of time,” Johnson says, “and we make sacrifices.” Johnson’s husband, Cayton, is also in the Army; he’s an Apache helicopter pilot. “For example, Cayton deployed when I was pregnant with Colton, and returned when he was five weeks old. But we knew that if we tried for that second baby, he would most likely miss the birth. If we waited until he returned, there was a good chance I would be getting ready to deploy, and I didn’t want to let my unit down by being non-deployable. It was a tough decision; we knew that was the profession we had chosen and we were at peace about it.” During that time, the couple’s military family surrounded them with support, including the Women’s Mentorship Network, which promotes leadership skills and specialized training for women in the armed forces—Johnson plays an active role in the organization.
Even with the additional burdens and disruptive schedules (between them, Cayton and Robin have nine deployments totaling a combined seven years of deployed service), Johnson is adamant that the mystery of the military parent be abolished. “I think there is a gap in understanding who these men and women really are,” she says. “A closer look will show that we are the Little League coaches, the Girl Scout leaders, the tired moms at the grocery store trying to convince our child that she doesn’t need four bags of Halloween candy at that very moment.” She finds herself frustrated at times with media coverage of what she calls “a few bad apples,” as well as constant programming about war and conflict overseas. “There is a stigma right now that many veterans have PTSD or other mental-health issues, and while these are very real problems that require focus and resources, I think it’s an unfair generalization of the military as a whole,” says Johnson, who can speak to the inner workings of this lifestyle better than most. “We are well-trained leaders, and we want to work hand-in-hand with our neighbors to make our nation stronger, and we’re doing that one community at a time.”
Johnson’s commitment is derived as much from her personality as it is from being active military—she’s a pretty tough woman, with or without the uniform. “I wouldn’t say I’m fearless, but I would say that I don’t back down from a challenge very easily, and I have a good bit of tenacity and grit.” As for why she was attracted to military life, she explains it this way: “I have always wanted to push myself past what was expected. Jumping out of planes didn’t necessarily seem like a dream job, but at the time it did seem like a whole lot of fun, and, to be honest, somebody has to do it.” She cops to a wild streak, but her relationship with Cayton, who is currently the kids primary caretaker while Robin works and travels the globe with her boss, gives her stability. “I knew he was ‘the one’ because he quickly became my best friend, and he was the first person to convince me he might be worth settling down for,” she says. “I could not do the job I am in now without him.”
The Johnsons have taken a page from military life for getting things done, especially when it comes to the kids. Annabelle is a talkative and curious little girl; Johnson calls her a natural leader, albeit “not always a good follower!” Colton is sweet and cuddly, and loves to sing. Johnson says life at home is “organized chaos.” The couple rely on lists and systems that to other families might seem a little “OCD,” she says, but Johnson sees no harm in the practice. “The military uses checklists to pre-flight a $20-million aircraft. I don’t see why we can’t do the same thing to help us get out the door in the mornings.” As she slowly gets up off the playroom floor, her hair a bit mussed and her lip-gloss smudged, Johnson is just like the rest of us, and as she heads up the stairs to the kitchen, the children’s laughter trails behind. “I want to leave the world a better place, and know that I did my very best to give my children and their children a better and safer world.”
I’m not saying I’m Wonder Woman, I’m just saying no one has seen the two of us in the same room.
Favorite date-night restaurant:
Many—but usually one of the locally owned restaurants that offer a military discount.
If you weren’t in the army:
I’d be an event planner for a nonprofit.
Flora by Gucci.
Most proud of:
My husband, for all of his support.
Worth fighting for:
The Bourbon Trail in Kentucky. We are big bourbon fans.
Dish you’ve mastered:
The capacity to act even when scared half to death.
Lancome Stargloss in “Hotness.”
Most important wardrobe item:
A good sports bra.
Best gift you’ve received:
A scrapbook from my family.
When in doubt:
Keep calm and AI-EE-YAH on.