Colonel Jesse Loftis Johnson, one of the most highly decorated Army special
operations veterans in United States history, passed away peacefully, with his family at his side, on September 13, 2022. He was 83.
Growing up in Pocahontas, Arkansas, rural town nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the little farm-boy with an eidetic memory devoured every book he could find on World War II and the heroes that won it. All those hours poring over their famed exploits, he had no idea that some of those same iconic names would one day become his real-life mentors, leading him into the most legendary battles of the Vietnam War—from the thick jungle mountains of the Central Highlands to the booby-trapped rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. Hitting the beach with the 1st Cavalry Division at Qui Nhon, South Vietnam, in September 1965, the then-young sergeant had no idea that he’d just taken the first step in an odyssey of warfare that would span five decades and several conflicts across the globe.
In 1968, the newly commissioned captain volunteered to return to Vietnam as a rifle company commander operating in the Mekong Delta with the 9th Infantry Division. In just his first few months of combat—leading bayonet charges, fighting the enemy hand-to-hand, clearing bunkers, negotiating minefields, and writing too many “next of kin” letters—he would earn his third Bronze Star, three Silver Stars, and three Purple Hearts. On the night of July 23, upon receiving reports that his men were about to be overrun by a full battalion of NVA, Johnson ordered a chopper to insert him alone at “the point of heaviest contact.” Rallying his men in a desperate, pitched battle, he killed scores of enemy fighters and organized the rescue of a downed helicopter crew. Despite a gaping chest wound off a VC rocket attack, he refused medical evacuation and continued fighting until he was sure the enemy was in full retreat and his men were safe. For his brave actions that night, he would receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
A decade later, after twice earning the Legion of Merit for his work as Deputy Commander of Delta Force and then commanding officer of the 10th Special Forces Group, Johnson would go on to command all special operations during Desert Storm, reporting directly to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commended him as an “unsung hero of the Gulf War.”
After almost 35 years of military service, Colonel Johnson “retired” from the Army in 1993, going on to launch Cochise MTS, one of the first private military contracting firms. By 2005, at age 65, he would once again find himself in frontline combat, this time leading a team of mostly former Delta Force operators in clashes against al-Qaeda insurgents along “Route Irish,” touted as the most dangerous road in Iraq.
Johnson offers a much deeper examination of his extraordinary life and hero’s journey in his bestselling memoir, Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, which recently earned a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America—his last decoration.
A great believer in education, Johnson held a master’s degree and honorary doctorate in international relations from Boston University. He is survived by his beloved wife, Judith Johnson; sisters, Lois Rogers, and Betty Cooper; and daughters Tambra, Felicia, and Shannon; grandchildren, Stephanie, Ashley, Jesse and Jacob great granddaughter, Jamison.
He is preceded in death by his parents, Daily M. and Hattie L. Johnson, brother Daily O. Johnson, and sister Mona Baker.
In Lieu of flowers please make donations to Special Operations Warriors Foundation.