He loved basketball, he loved acting, he loved to draw -- and he loved helping people. Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Vann Johnson Jr., a Navy hospital corpsman, died Tuesday while tending to wounded troops in Iraq, his family said Thursday.
Johnson, who was serving with the 1st Marine Division, would have celebrated his 26th birthday on Monday. He had been assigned to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
"He never understood why anyone would mistreat anyone else. He had a big heart. And he is my hero," his father, Michael Vann Johnson Sr., said Thursday by telephone from the family home in Little Rock, Ark. "He died for the freedom that we have, the freedom that we love."
Janisa Hooks -- one of the the corpsman's seven siblings -- told Associated Press that her oldest brother was hit in the head by shrapnel while helping an injured comrade. She said her brother "made peace with God and himself" before traveling to Iraq.
The senior Michael Johnson, a retired air traffic controller with the Air Force, said his son joined the military after graduating from the University of Central Arkansas. The corpsman married his wife, Cherice, three years ago. The couple lived in San Diego before Michael was deployed to Iraq. They had no children.
Michael Johnson Sr. said his son was athletic and liked to play guard in basketball because he liked taking possession of the ball.
"But he also liked to play forward because he liked the competition for the rebound," his father said. "And he could jump!"
At 6 feet 1, the son was tall enough to look down at his namesake. "That was the only thing that he ever did that I told him not to do -- he grew taller than me," his father recalled Thursday. His son, he added, was a natural mimic who enjoyed performing and dreamed of becoming an actor.
His mother, Jana Norfleet, told Associated Press that she recently received a letter in which her son said "God had twisted a guardian angel around him." Michael Johnson Sr. said his own military training taught him not to assume his son would make it back.
"I know everyone says this about their own son," the elder Johnson said. "But he was a good kid. He had a special talent for being good at anything he undertook. And he always wanted to be the best at whatever he did."