The Best She Can Be

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Alumna Chelsi Johnson took the strategic communications skills she learned at UW Tacoma to the D.C. National Guard and the Department of Defense.

Chelsi Johnson turned off the television. “I knew I’d be called into work based on what I was seeing on CNN,” she said. Johnson is the Chief of Public Affairs for the 113th Wing of the Air National Guard. Johnson’s unit is part of the District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG), which is tasked with providing military assistance, when needed, to the Washington, D.C. area.

A group of insurrectionists had just pushed past barricades and overrun police and were now storming the United States Capitol. “I was already dressed and walking out the door when I got the official word that we needed to report to the D.C. Armory,” said Johnson.

Pursuit of Excellence

The youngest of four siblings, Johnson grew up in Utah. “I was raised by a single mom and we didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. Johnson struggled in school. “I didn’t really apply myself,” she said. “I was a good kid, but I didn’t have a lot of structure.”

Johnson graduated from high school in June 2001. She knew she wanted to go to college but wondered if she had the focus needed to succeed. Family friends urged her to join the Air National Guard. Johnson liked the idea of serving but felt she needed a bigger commitment. “I decided to join the Air Force because I thought doing this full-time would be the right thing for me and would give me a chance to develop some skills,” she said.

Johnson served in the Air Force for seven years. During that time, she did two tours in Iraq and also completed an associate’s degree through the Community College of the Air Force. Johnson’s decision to leave active duty came down to education. “We were deploying a lot and I wasn’t able to focus on school as much as I wanted,” she said. “I wanted to become an officer and I needed to figure out a way where I could devote my time to getting an education and that wasn’t going to happen while on active duty.”

This does not mean Johnson stopped serving. Instead, she enlisted in the 142nd Wing, Oregon Air National Guard. At the same time, she signed up for classes at UW Tacoma. “I had the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits which paid for everything,” said Johnson. “This meant I didn’t need to worry about finding a job and could focus just on school.”

While at UW Tacoma Johnson was mentored by Associate Professor Chris Demaske. “She definitely pushed me to be the best that I could be,” said Johnson. Demaske encouraged Johnson to apply for the highly competitive study abroad program that took students to Russia where they would work with Moscow State University students to create their own magazine. “It was probably one of the most amazing things I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and I wouldn’t have even applied if not for Chris.”

Johnson graduated from UW Tacoma in the spring of 2012. Afterward, she moved to Vancouver, Washington, to work full-time with her guard unit and to pursue an opportunity to become a public affairs officer.

What Would Chris Demaske Think?

Johnson moved to Washington, D.C. in 2016. She currently works as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense [DOD]. “I provide strategic communication support to the undersecretary of defense and the deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering,” she said.

Johnson’s position as Chief of Public Affairs for the 113th Wing and her work with the DOD are separate but right now she is pulling double duty. The events of January 6 complicated Johnson’s life. The D.C. National Guard were deployed to safeguard the inauguration and will remain called up through the end of March. Johnson could have taken a leave of absence from her DOD job but decided against it. “I enjoy my civilian job and I enjoy the client that I support and the company I work for,” she said. “I wanted to maintain that level of continuity by still engaging in my civilian job every day.”

This means Johnson does her DOD work in the morning before pulling a swing shift with the DCNG. “It’s our job to get the story out and provide as much information as we can to members of the news media,” she said. Johnson has been busy of late. She has fielded questions from news outlets including  CNN and Politico.

There is one thought, or rather person, going through Johnson’s head every time she drafts a statement or gives an interview. “I think, ‘Would Chris Demaske get mad if I wrote this or would she be happy with it?’” said Johnson.

The OddsCaptain Johnson poses for a picture outside the D.C. Armory with fellow University of Washington alumni.

The impact of the Capitol insurrection is still being felt. Investigations are underway to find out precisely what happened and who is responsible. The chaos of that day didn’t leave behind many silver linings. Maybe it’s futile to look for such things in that particular story.

Then again.

The insurrection and the aftermath did bring together three people. Take a look at this photo. In it are Captain Johnson (front right), Major Renee Lee (front left) and Major Aaron Thacker. Lee is an alumna of the UW in Seattle; Thacker graduated from UW Bothell. Johnson and Lee knew each other previously. Johnson and Thacker met when he was called up to help secure the capitol. The three stopped to snap a picture at the D.C. Armory. “We all just laughed because what are the odds that three graduates from the three UW campuses would all be here at the same time,” said Johnson.

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 3, 2021
Photos by: 
Chelsi Johnson and Megan Kitagawa
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu