Once a Ranger, always a Ranger: Bemidji man still connecting with Army brothers 50 years later

From his home office in Bemidji, Steve Johnson edits the latest edition of "Patrolling," a national publication for the 75th Ranger Regiment Association. (Dennis Doeden | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Steve Johnson served as a U.S. Army Ranger in the jungles of Vietnam 50 years ago. He completed his two years of service, and the mental struggles that plagued so many Vietnam veterans have lingered.

But instead of burying the nightmarish memories of war, Johnson has embraced his past, reconnected with many of the fellow Rangers with whom he served, and taken on a national Army Ranger leadership role. The 73-year-old Bemidji man is president of the 75th Ranger Regiment Association and editor of two Ranger publications.

Army Rangers are described as “a lethal, agile and flexible force, capable of conducting many complex, joint special operations missions.” They are considered the Army's premier direct-action raid force. That was the case in Vietnam, and remains the case today.

For about 20 years after leaving the Army, Johnson had little contact with his fellow Rangers. He focused on his career as a teacher, working primarily with students who had emotional and behavioral disabilities.

But in 1990, Johnson and 27 other Rangers got together in Sacramento, Calif., for the first of what has become a yearly reunion. The next year, about 120 Rangers attended the reunion in Washington, D.C. This year will mark the 30th anniversary of that first reunion, and it’s fitting that the 2020 event will be held in Sacramento.


“It was a stepping stone,” Johnson said of being reunited with his Ranger brothers. “It was healing. Most everybody had the same experience, because ever since then we’ve met every year. I can attest to the fact that it’s a healthy experience for me.”

Steve grew up in a military family. His father was career Air Force, and the Johnson's lived in Minnesota, Maine, Washington state, Japan, Nebraska and North Dakota. Steve graduated from Grand Forks Central High School. He enrolled at the University of North Dakota for one year, but left school and eventually volunteered for the draft.

Following the intense training involved in becoming an Army Ranger, it was time to go to Vietnam. He was there for 10½ months.

“We did a lot of reconnaissance,” he said. “There were times when we would do ambushes, we’d go out and do what we’d call hunter/killer scenes. Drop in and make contact right away. POW snatches, where we would capture enemy soldiers. We were inserted into the enemy’s back yard by helicopter, and there was always a command ship, another helicopter behind should the one helicopter get shot down. It was intense.”

After Vietnam, he took some time off before returning to college. Some friends told him Bemidji State University had a strong support group for military veterans. “I came to Bemidji and checked it out,” Johnson said. “I felt more comfortable with other veterans who were experiencing the same things as me.”

That’s where he also met Pam, his wife of 46 years. Both are now retired educators, and Pam has joined Steve as he fulfills many of his obligations with the Rangers.

Johnson views those duties more as opportunities, both for himself and for fellow Rangers. He spends time in his Bemidji home editing the quarterly magazine, “Patrolling,” and the newsletter of the Company G Rangers, “Sua Sponte,” which is published three times a year. He also has served in numerous leadership roles for both the Company G and 75th Regiment groups. He’s currently in the first year of a two-year term as president of the 75th.

Johnson attends the annual Best Ranger Competition, an event involving two-man active duty teams held at Fort Benning in Georgia and broadcast on ESPN. He is involved in the Ranger scholarship program. He attends funerals of Ranger brothers. A Ranger Rendezvous is held every two years. He attends regional Ranger breakfasts. And so much more.


“It has to do with trust,” Johnson said of his continued involvement with fellow Rangers. “Being a part of something that created a bond. We were closer than brothers. Though we had fun, tragedies, and so forth, we had true friendship, without question. To just accept each other without question to this day is something very special. I’ll never forget.”

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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