From gang leader to service member: Airman overcomes odds to find success

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Andrew Park
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Many Airmen gain leadership skills by progressing through the ranks and taking on more responsibilities. Many times this includes special schooling such as airman leadership school or the non-commissioned officer academy. One Airman became a leader at a much earlier age, before he even joined the Air Force.

At 17 years old, Staff Sgt. Tyrone Johnson, currently a 386th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron services journeyman, found himself in charge of a 60-member street gang in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. He joined the gang at age 14 when his older brother, Demetrius, was the leader; however, when Demetrius died after swallowing a quarter ounce of cocaine at a traffic stop, Johnson was tapped to lead the ranks. 

“I noticed that there were many people following me and they’d actually kind of do what I say,” Johnson said. “And I’ve never been negative so I’m always trying to find a positive way, so I kind of reversed it from how they used to do it because they were, at times, ruthless.”

Instead of involving the gang in stereotypical actions such as selling drugs and engaging in violence, Johnson chose to focus their attention on improving the community and the lives of its members. He would often find opportunities to pick up trash around the neighborhood and paint old playground equipment at the local park. 

Johnson also encouraged discipline and determination in reaching goals, such as getting one follower on track to becoming a professional boxer. He looked at his fellow gang members as an extension of his family. 

Today, Johnson’s only living family member is his sister. His father passed away when Johnson was around six months old, and his mother, who battled with cancer most of her life, passed away while Johnson was in college.

Johnson’s route to college was almost as unique as his rise to leadership. He was forced to drop out of school his senior year due to his daughter’s premature birth. With few options remaining for a career or higher education, he enrolled in the Mississippi Job Corps, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor that helps teenagers and young adults get educational and vocational training. 

After graduating from the job corps, he enrolled in a community college then transferred to Mississippi State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in education.

Bouncing around from job to job, constantly looking for a chance to make an impact on others’ lives, he eventually arrived at a Mississippi Air National Guard recruiter’s office.

Johnson said while being at the job corps and technical training, and reflecting on everything that happened in the past, he learned if he was able to make an impact on someone, it would personally affect him if they didn’t take the right path. 
Armed with a new sense of purpose, Johnson has been a positive force in the lives of nearly everyone who comes through the doors of the Desert Winds Dining Facility, greeting everyone with his trademark salutation and smile. 

“I have people come through the line and you never know what small word or detail will do for someone,” Johnson said. 

His chain of command also recognized his impact on the mission and values his contribution to improving the daily lives of both the Desert Winds’ customers and his coworkers. 

“We have a motto that we try to live up to that says we’re ‘honored to serve’ others,” said Maj. Jon Hart, the 386th EFSS commander. “Johnson’s always-positive attitude is a reflection of who he is as a person, his character, and what he believes about the job. Tyrone does a great job of staying positive and, in turn, having a positive influence on those around him. I don’t think it’s a show. I think it’s because he’s truly happy to be alive and happy to be serving in our great Air Force.”

Johnson brings his life experience to each facet of his job and uses the experiences to engage all those around him. 

“I know how important it is to help somebody,” Johnson said. “Just one small thing from somebody who can motivate you can give you that little nudge you might need.” 

Johnson’s future goals include becoming a motivational speaker and commissioning as an Air Force officer, where he can continue to draw from his life experience to help others find their way. 

“I know people want to change,” Johnson said. “They just need an avenue to go down. A lot of times people don’t provide those avenues. Even if you do go down that avenue, there’s a lot of stuff down there that you’ve got to maneuver around.”