Faces of TAPS gives military survivors the space to, in their own words, both celebrate the lives of their military loved ones and reflect on their personal grief journey.
Holly Higgins, surviving mother of U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Daniel James Johnson, lives her life to honor her son. In 2010, Daniel was killed in action in Afghanistan and, ever since, Holly and her family have worked to carry on his legacy of helping others. Leaning on Daniel’s love for rock climbing, she and her family established the SrA Daniel James Johnson Memorial Climbing Center at the same summer camp Daniel grew up working at in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. In addition to sharing her story with us, Holly also uses her story to help others through her work with The Heroes Journey. Holly serves as the group’s Gold Star Ambassador and travels across the country with them, sharing LTC (R) Scott Mann’s play, Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret. Through her work with The Heroes Journey, Holly connects and inspires veterans, fellow surviving family members, and civilians.
We thank Holly for sharing her story with us, and hope you also find inspiration and strength in her words.
TAPS: What is something you'd want people to know about Daniel?
Holly: Whenever Daniel is talked about and remembered, our whole family thinks about the fact that, from the moment he was born, he was a passionate child. He was driven and had zeal. Those are the three words that always come up when we talk about Daniel: passion, drive, and zeal. He had an amazing capacity for passion and compassion for people.
After he was killed, one of his brothers said something that really stuck with me. He said, “Daniel’s mission in life seemed to be to take responsibility for his life by doing everything he could to make the world a better place for others, to the point where he ultimately gave his own life to make it better for others.”
Daniel was driven to be the very best at everything he could do. That kid competed with himself constantly. He was in a constant state of trying to make himself better; but it wasn’t about him, it was always for others. Right after high school, he got involved in training to go down and help out with Hurricane Katrina. That’s all he could focus on before he started college. He was just constantly in a state of doing for other people.
TAPS: Can you share a favorite memory of you and Daniel?
Holly: The week before he was married, my husband and I were flying out to California to be at the wedding. But the day before we were supposed to leave, something came up and my husband couldn’t fly out that same day with me. At the time, I was upset. It disrupted my day and I had to fly alone to an unfamiliar airport. I was whiny and complaining, but the minute I got there, the doors opened from Los Angeles International Airport and I felt that balmy California air. And, there stood my handsome, smiling 22-year-old son. I saw him and just forgot everything. We drove up the coast with the windows open, the sun was shining. He was telling me his plans for his future. It was such a precious, precious time with just the two of us. He took me to his favorite spots — the beach where he learned to surf, his favorite restaurant. Before the sun set, we were at the top of this hill where he’d done a lot of rock climbing and we were looking at these hills that were ripe with strawberries. The air smelled as sweet as cotton candy, it was so potent. And I stood there thinking, “Wow, it had been a long time since I had spent an entire day alone with my son.”
It turned out that that was the last time I was ever to spend an entire day alone with my precious son. Three months to the day of his wedding, he was killed. So, the lesson for me to carry from that was when things disrupt our plans, look out for all the good. It was a very precious memory that I will carry forever.
What Holly discovered on her grief journey
TAPS: What gives you hope?
Holly: This is going to sound odd. I have a sort of different perspective on this, but my answer to that is that my experience with grief gives me hope. Grief has become my companion, it’s my friend. Grief has taught me so much. Grief can bring us comfort because it is what allows us to feel that pain and express it. If we don’t feel it and express it, we’re never going to be comforted.
But for me, it also brought meaning and purpose into my life. The things that grief has taught me and the gifts that grief has given me, that gives me hope.
"Grief has become my companion, it's my friend. Grief has taught me so much. Grief can bring us comfort because it is what allows us to feel that pain and express it. If we don't feel it and express it, we're never going to be comforted."
TAPS: What have you learned throughout your grief journey?
Holly: If we allow grief to do what it can do in our hearts, it brings comfort, it brings purpose and meaning. And recently, I discovered for me, when grief hits me again, which it always will, the shock, the hurt, it bubbles up when you least expect it. I realized that the whole emotion that comes is cleansing.
This world is so full of toxins that hurt us — our jobs, our environment, other people, strangers, whatever — we get hurt a lot in this world, and the ability to get in touch with our feelings and cry, that’s cleansing. I’ve learned grief can cleanse out those toxins and be this precious gift. In my case, I had a loved one who did this enormously meaningful thing in his life, and it’s grief that brings me back. I get cleansed and I refocus. I get rid of those other pains and it reminds me of what is really important in this world, to not get caught up with all the unnecessary events that go on around us. To me, I look at grief as a tool for growth.
TAPS: Why do you feel it is important to carry on your son's legacy in the way you do?
Holly: That was the easiest question for me. Because of his passion, his zeal, and because he chose in his life to always try to make the world better, I want to too.
The career he chose in the Air Force was disarming bombs, which is a job that is saving lives. One of the last things he said to me in person was, “You know mom, remember, I’m going to save lives, not take them.” And that’s what he did. He saved countless lives disarming countless IEDs; so for me now, what I’m doing with working with The Heroes Journey as their Gold Star Ambassador and a part of the team that continues to do this play for veterans, families, and civilians — it saves lives. I know it saves lives. I've been there when veterans have been impacted by the play and gone right into trauma therapy or gotten support.
You know the poem, “In Flanders Field?” Well, the last line says something like, “...from failing hands we throw the torch to you, take up our cause.” This is what I’ve got to do. I feel like I've taken Dan’s torch, and now I’m a part of saving lives. I’m not disarming IEDs, but everything I do now is in his honor, and my highest calling and priority is my work with The Heroes Journey.
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Holly Higgins is the surviving mother of U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Daniel James Johnson.
Photos courtesy of Holly Higgins