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Staff Writer

DEVENS — If anyone typifies a first responder, it would have to be the United States Marines.

First Sgt. Roderick Johnson, of Ordinance Contact Team One of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines at Devens, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., and part of the 4th Marine Logistics Group, is the first military service member to be awarded Nashoba Publishing’s Extraordinary Service Award.

He’s been a first responder for 22 years, ready to go anywhere, anytime and imparting that historic commitment to the men and women under his command.

But it is his love of school children and the outreach he and the Marines under his command make, particularly to youngsters in Pepperell, and their whole-hearted participation in July Fourth activities, that are above and beyond the call of duty.

A native of Montgomery, Ala., Johnson was inspired to enlist by the 1983 Beirut bombing. He had been attending Kemper University when a Marine recruiter made a visit.

“They told me I was too small to be a Marine. I kept going back. I adapted and overcame,” he said.

He has since run the Marine Marathon three times, become a gunnery sergeant, then a drill instructor — graduating with honors and receiving the Corps’ Mike Award for top physical fitness.

Maj. Rick Tremble said of Johnson, “Too small to be a Marine? If heart is a measure, he’s 6-foot four and 240.”

Johnson’s duty assignments have included Okinawa, Camp LeJeune, and Desert Storm.

Another “favorite job, besides combat” was hospital liaison at Virginia Beach where “I had the opportunity to serve young Marines from Iraq with long-term illness and surgery,” he said.

“I’ll share my personal belief that the word ‘sergeant’ comes from the words ‘to serve,'” he said. “I sat with a Tuskegee Airman the other day. I got a chance to thank him for his service and the sacrifices they made. It’s a tale of diversity and adversity.

“I also talked with Chester Inez, one of the Navajo Code Talkers,” Johnson continued. “You sit around them (and get) inspiration.”

As for the outreach to schools, Johnson said, “Our job is not only to train reserves but to be an ambassador. That school (Peter Fitzpatrick) reached out to us and we owed them something. (The Memorial Day ceremony) brings tears to my eyes every time,” he said. “I appreciate their work behind the scenes and we wanted to give something back.

Johnson and fellow Marines enjoy the instant respect of the kindergarten kids through fifth graders. He’s more direct with middle schoolers.

On one recent Memorial Day, Johnson took with him a book listing the names of Marines killed or missing in action.

“I want you to remember these faces. They are real people who made the ultimate sacrifice for you,” Johnson told the students.

“Pepperell has been awesome,” he said. “If I was to retire and take a job, I’d choose Pepperell for what its teaching their kids about life and patriotism. It’s a great school and a great town.”

“My father and grandfather, a truck driver with a seventh grade education who drove folks during the civil movement, set an example for me,” Johnson said, “as did the Vietnam veteran, the World War II veteran, the Tuskegee Airman, the Navajo.

“I believe in children, in being a father. Children are a gift from above and we should cherish every moment,” he said.

He believes in leadership by example and is motivated by scripture.

“To whom much is given, a great amount is required. It’s not so much what you know it’s how much you care,” Johnson said.

A first sergeant’s day is a full one. One part he doesn’t enjoy is communicating with families of the dead and wounded as casualty assistance officer.

“I would most definitely recommend the Marine Corps. It’s an awesome vessel God placed me in,” Johnson said.

As he shook hands preparing to interview a “boot” (newly enlisted would-be Marine) waiting in an adjoining room, he shared what has guided him throughout his career.

“Who’s FAT?” he said. “Always be faithful. Always be available. Always be teachable.”