SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Michele Johnson graduated from Riley High School in 1982, she headed down to Bloomington to continue her education at Indiana University.
She didn’t like it.
“It was too big,” Johnson recalled. “Coming from South Bend, it was like a culture shock.”
Johnson came home after a year. She wanted to return to South Bend after the first semester, but her mother made her stay.
“She told me, ‘You’re gonna finish off this year,’” Johnson recalled.
Johnson still had college dreams when she returned, and her brother, Michael Patton, had a way she could go to school while serving her country. Patton, the president of the South Bend chapter of the NAACP, was in the United States Air Force at the time and he suggested she join the Air Force.
“At first, I was like no because I wanted to go to college,” Johnson recalled. “He was like, ‘you can go to college,’ and he told me that they pay for it.”
Johnson visited a recruiting office and she eventually spent eight years in the Air Force while being based at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Johnson got married and started a family during her time in the service, but she didn’t return to school.
“I met my daughter’s dad and we got married and I became a wife and I was like I will do (college) later and kept putting it on the back burner,” Johnson said.
Johnson left the Air Force in 1990 and she eventually made her way back to Indiana and South Bend, where her daughter, Jannae Gammage, followed in her footsteps by attending Riley. Gammage, a 2004 Riley graduate, played basketball at the school and went on to play in college.
In the meantime, Johnson was getting the urge to return to college and she enrolled at IUSB. And it was at IUSB that Johnson got a wakeup call.
“I was sitting in this economics class with all these young kids who were my daughter’s age, and the instructor said she was still paying back school loans,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson, who was 41 at the time, wanted to stay in school but had no desire to be repaying school loans in her 60s.
“The first thing in my mind is I am too old to go,” she said.
But she wasn’t because the age limit is 42. The Air Force recruiter told Johnson that branch wasn’t taking people who had prior service, but she said the Army was.
After years of participating in sports, both in high school and college, Gammage was also thinking about serving her country.
Gammage played ball at a college in Texas and then transferred to Indiana Tech. But by her senior year, Gammage told her mother life as a student-athlete was wearing on her, particularly after she suffered an injury.
Gammage had decided to join the Army. She made that decision a few months before Johnson decided to resume her military career.
Gammage said military service runs deep in her family.
“My parents were in and my uncles and my grandfather, and so it was just normal for me to see people from my family in the military,” Gammage said. “So once I injured myself, I decided to join the military.”
Being an athlete prepared Gammage for her military career.
“Both build on the same sentiments of teamwork, leadership and discipline,” Gammage said, “so I did not see a lot of differences.”
Gammage went into the Army in June 2007, while Johnson was inducted in February 2008, but joining the military placed them on a path that would see them both on the ground in Iraq.
Johnson ended up being deployed to Iraq, where she worked in human resources. “I basically took care of soldiers as far as their personnel records, awards and promotions,” she said.
Gammage worked as an intelligence analyst.
“I can’t really talk about what I did, but my title was intelligence analyst,” Gammage said.
The two did not work in the same location and they did not get a chance to speak often, and that took a toll.
“There were a lot of emotions,” Gammage recalled. "I was nervous when we were both over there. You can’t speak, because I can’t call as easily as I did when we were in the states.
“But I was also excited knowing that she was right around the corner.”
Mother and daughter had at least one face-to-face meeting when they attended each others' reenlistment ceremonies.
Johnson said Gammage flew in a Black Hawk helicopter to attend the ceremony at the base where Johnson was stationed.
Then Johnson flew with Gammage to attend the ceremony at the base where her daughter was stationed.
The two were together in Iraq for a year before Johnson returned to the States, where she worked as an Army recruiter in South Bend for three years after leaving Iraq in 2010.
Johnson, who is currently on leave before retiring from the military in December, served in Germany before returning to the States and working with ROTC students in Georgia as a diversity and inclusion program manager at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
Gammage was deployed to Iraq two other times before leaving the military and moving to Kansas City, where she owns a computer software company.
Johnson is leaving the military, but she will continue to serve, this time as a mentor to girls in South Bend. Johnson joined the military to continue her education, but she said she received much more from her career of service.
Johnson said that, like many young people, she had low self-esteem as a young person and did not always make the right decisions.
“I didn’t understand my leadership qualities,” she recalled. “The support system around me was pushing me, but I didn’t understand me.”
Johnson said going into the military allowed her to interact with all kind of people and gave her a chance to develop her leadership skills.
“When I came back to South Bend as a recruiter,” she said, “I was adamant about showing the young people in this community that there are opportunities to expand and expose them to something different.”