Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Saturday, 20 June 2009 11:40 UK

The hero who casts a long shadow

The death of an American soldier earlier this week brought the total of US military personnel killed in Iraq to 4,314. The majority came from small-town America. James Coomarasamy reports from a farming community in Texas.

Angela and Nubbin Johnston
Gary Johnston's uncle was killed on active service in Vietnam

It is hard to miss Angela and Nubbin Johnston's house. Nestling in the quiet, rural surroundings of Windthorst, a small farming community in northern Texas, it is flanked by a flagpole with three flags fluttering on it.

The stars and stripes is on top, of course, followed by the lone star of the lone star state. And last, but certainly not least, there is a red flag, depicting an eagle perched on a globe and anchor, the symbol of the marine corps.

Peer through the window of the four wheel drive, parked by the side of the house, and you notice a sticker on the dashboard, that proclaims its owner to be the proud parent of a US marine.

What the sticker does not say is that the marine, in question, died two years ago aged 21.

Gary Johnston's death, from a roadside bomb in Iraq, is what brought me to Windthorst before. Now, I was fulfilling a promise to return.

They came to meet me, outwardly unchanged. Angela, a smiling grey-haired lady, radiating optimism and homeliness, hugged me and shouted: "So, you're back in the boonies!"

Lingering spirit

Nubbin, the same big man, in trademark blue dungarees, had fewer words, but an equally broad grin.

Inside, everything was, at once, familiar and different.

The kitchen had the same layout, but, unlike last time, it was neither groaning under the weight of leftover food from Gary's funeral nor full of brown paper parcels containing Gary's belongings.

Gary was there in spirit, though. And, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkened front room, I could see that he had been immortalised in art.


On one wall, hung a new painting, showing two men in military fatigues, comrades in arms in some distant, dusty land.

It was an artist's impression of a fictional scene. Although they were uncle and nephew, the men in the picture, both called Gary Johnston, never met in real life.

The older one, Nubbin's brother, was killed in Vietnam. The younger Gary had shared both his uncle's name and his fate.

Looking at the picture, Angela smiled.

"He did a pretty good job disguising our Gary's receding hairline," she chuckled.

Funerals' vigil

What the Johnstons cannot disguise, though, is the fact that, two years after their son's death, they are finding it hard to move on.

In part, it is down to a sense of duty, a commitment to repay the marine community for its support.

Windthorst may have fewer than 500 inhabitants, but Gary's funeral was attended by thousands.

Here in Windthorst, we'll always be known as the family whose son died in Iraq

Nubbin Johnston

These days, Nubbin and Angela get on their motorbikes and head to the funerals of other fallen marines, where they boost the numbers and form part of an honour guard.

But they are starting to feel that the small town which sustained them is holding them back.

"We don't want to leave Gary behind. Don't get me wrong. But we need to go forward," Nubbin told me.

"Here in Windthorst, we'll always be known as the family whose son died in Iraq."

Recently, their two daughters persuaded Nubbin to remove the Gary-abilia which filled the front room. It did not go far.

These days, the medals, mementoes and gifts from well-wishers, sit in an adjoining, spare room, laid out like a museum exhibit.

And after a lunch of cream-cheese-stuffed and bacon-wrapped jalapeno peppers, known as rats tails, followed by a main course of Texas ham and sweet potatoes, Nubbin and Angela took me for a drive, where it soon became clear that their own, private shrine had several public equivalents.

In Windthorst's small town centre, we stopped at a new memorial, built thanks to Angela's efforts, which celebrates the lives of Gary and two other local men, who had died in earlier wars.

Next, we headed to Gary Johnston Way, the short, but prominent road leading to the local football pitch, before heading to Archer City, the place where Gary was laid to rest.

Hero's shadow

As we drove along a route, which, on the day of Gary's funeral, had been lined with cheering, flag-waving crowds, a darker mood descended over Nubbin.

"Whenever we go to a wedding we bring the negative," he said.

"Gary's friends see us, and the smiles give way to tears. There's nothing we can do about it."

Funeral of a US Marine killed in Iraq
More than 4,000 US troops have been killed in Iraq

And he is worried about the kids who say they want to join the marines, because of Gary.

"How will I feel if they get killed in Afghanistan or somewhere else?" he asked.

"Will I be able to look their parents in the face?"

Soon we arrived at the cemetery, where a huge iron sign, bearing the word Johnston, marks the spot where uncle and nephew are buried.

As she stood, contemplating the ground, Angela whispered: "I wish he was here."

It is easy to imagine that he is. Gary Johnston, a small-town hero, who casts a very long shadow.

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