To Be A Marine


Waco corporal who died in Iraq found calling in service, his parents say

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

June 14, 2007

Friends and family say Waco native Johnny Ray Strong had wanted to be a Marine since he was a boy. When he was 11, along with playing baseball and soccer, Strong joined the Little Marines. Later at A.J. Moore Academy, he joined the Junior ROTC and signed up for the Marines his senior year.

After graduating from A.J. Moore in 2004, Strong went to boot camp in San Diego, then spent six months in extensive training, during which he received an award for marksmanship.

“Johnny’s an only child, so his mom always tried to stop him from going to Iraq because she didn’t want to lose her only son,” said Strong’s grandmother, Minerva Williams. “But he just told her, ‘Mom, you should just adopt another kid.’ ”

On Tuesday morning, Lance Cpl. Johnny Ray Strong was killed when his platoon was ambushed during a routine patrol in Iraq.

At 21, Strong was Waco’s first Marine killed in Iraq. Strong’s parents were told about his death Tuesday, though the U.S. Defense Department has not commented publicly on his death.

“All we know is that the day Johnny died, three other Marines from his platoon died too in a roadside bomb,” said Lance Cpl. Nicholas Blanchard, who attended A.J. Moore with Strong. “He was a lance corporal, same as me. He was in the same class as me, in Junior ROTC with me, and a fellow Marine.”

On Wednesday, friends and family talked about their memories of Strong, even as they tried to come to terms with his death. His mother, Jacqueline Williams, described him as a quiet boy until he blossomed in his late teens.

“Until about high school, he stayed home,” Williams said. “I finally said, ‘Go make some friends,’ and that’s when he really flourished.”

Strong, born in Temple, grew up in Waco, where his family still resides. He attended Dean Highland Elementary and G.L. Wiley Middle School before going to A.J. Moore.

Strong enjoyed listening to music, especially the symphony, and played the organ, his parents said. He also enjoyed mission trips with the Church Under the Bridge. Bowling was another hobby, and he eventually won the citywide championship in hisleague.

“He liked camping and going on long adventures,” his mother said. “We went as a family to Nebraska, California, Arizonia, but his favorite was Reno, Nev. He always wanted to go back there.”

Strong described himself as “just a regular person trying to make friends” on his MySpace profile, which he last updated Friday.

At A.J. Moore, he was in the first graduating class of the school’s Academy of Information Technology, principal Debra Bishop said. But friends said Strong’s focus never wavered from his goal.

“The most important thing to Johnny in high school was becoming a Marine,” said Claudia Compian, who attended A.J. Moore with Strong. “He told me if he ever did anything with his life, he wanted to be a Marine.”

Strong’s first tour to Iraq began on July 4, 2005.

Never negative

“During that first tour, he emailed about every week and wrote letters,” said his father, Steve Strong. “He never said anything negative in them.”

In one letter, Strong referred to some artwork sent to him by his cousins, three younger girls: “It was a great morale booster. It reminds me of what I’m fighting for and makes me want to fight harder.”

In another letter, Strong wrote that he had “holes in his souls,” referring to his shoes.

“Bless his heart, I shot out and bought him some nice hiking boots,” his grandmother, Minerva Williams, said. “But he couldn’t wear them — they were black, he could only wear brown.”

Strong was in his second tour in Iraq when he died. He would have completed the tour in August and might have moved up to a position as corporal by the end of the year.

“He kept to himself about Iraq, but he said it wasn’t too bad,” said Amanda Cummings, who attended A.J. Moore with Strong. “He always wanted to be a Marine. I mean, when you thought Johnny, you thought the Marines.”

When his first tour ended last fall, Strong returned to Waco for Christmas and left for Iraq at the end of January.

“He always came back to visit,” Bishop said. “He was a role model for students. He told them some of the things he did in high school that he shouldn’t have. He enjoyed the Marines and came back to recruit students.”

Besides being a friend, classmate Ashlie Devaney said, Strong was her “partner in crime.” “There was a street sign that said ‘Sturgis’ I wanted to give to my mom for Christmas, but I didn’t know how to get it off, so Johnny volunteered to help me,” Devaney said. “We snuck to where the sign was and spent about an hour trying to get it down without being loud and getting caught. We would run every time a car came up, then wait and run back to the sign.”

‘There for a friend’

She added: “We laughed the whole time. It was one of those childish, teenage things, but it meant something to me that he would risk getting caught just to help me get the sign for my mom. He was always there for a friend.”

Strong’s family said he did not talk about being in Iraq once he was home.

“He never discussed it, except that they were keeping him busy, and that made the time pass quickly,” his father said.

Orginally, Strong planned to make a career out of the military, but after his first tour he decided he wanted to become an engineer. Strong also planned to start a new car club in California, where he was based in the city of Twentynine Palms, when he returned.

“That’s what he said in the last e-mail he sent me, on June 6,” Steve Strong said. “He couldn’t work on cars, but he loved to drive them — he got a lot of speeding tickets.”

Previously, three other soldiers who have lived in the Waco area have died in Iraq. Army Spc. Javier Villanueva was killed Nov. 24, 2005, in Hit, Iraq. Official military records list Villanueva’s residence as Temple because his wife and daughter lived there at the time of his death. But Villanueva attended Waco and then La Vega schools, where he graduated. Pfc. Jeffrey Paul Shaffer of the Army died in Ramadi, Iraq, on Sept. 13, 2006. Shaffer attended West High School before leaving the state and signing up in the Army. And Lorena native Gunnery Sgt. John D. Fry of the Marines died in the Anbar province of Iraq on March 8, 2006.

Despite the danger, Strong’s friends said, he enjoyed being a Marine.

‘He died a hero’

“He went to Iraq to fight for the rights of people, and he died a hero,” A.J. Moore classmate Citlali Najera said.

Strong’s funeral will be at Connally-Compton Funeral Directors, although the time and date have not yet been announced.

He will be buried at Oakwood Cemetery. A scholarship fund in Strong’s memory has been established at A.J. Moore Academy, and donations can be made through the school.

“He was always a good soldier,” Strong’s mother said.

Added his father, “He was my pride and joy.”

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