It has to be one of the rarest military handovers to ever take place in Iraq. A son ready to come home after a six-month deployment is handing his guard post over to his mother, who is beginning her own six-month tour of duty.
Senior Airman Derrick Johnson, 20, and his mother, Staff Sgt. Tammi Johnson, are both Air Force reservists serving in different units that provide security for Air Force facilities. Shortly after Derrick Johnson deployed to Iraq six months ago, Tammi Johnson received word that her unit would replace her son's unit. But even after that coincidence, mother and son had no idea that random assignments would result in her taking over the very same guard tower her son has been manning at the U.S. airbase in Kirkuk, Iraq.
"This is all just a big coincidence," Derrick Johnson told an Air Force public affairs reporter. "When I found out she was coming to replace me, my jaw dropped just wondering what the chances were of this occurring."
In a reversal of roles, Derrick now finds himself in the unique position of training his mother to take over his job and she's a ready student.
"I've been asking Derrick tons of questions," said Tammi Johnson. "A car rolled real slowly by the perimeter of the base today, and I started getting nervous. But Derrick was there to tell me it was the Iraqi Police, and everything was all right. He knows right off-hand what to do, and I don't feel intimidated or stupid when I ask him the simplest questions."
The amazing handover was made possible by an even more unlikely turn of events.
Two years ago, when Derrick was ready to graduate from high school, Tammi Johnson accompanied him to an Air Force recruiting office after he expressed an interest in joining the same serivce she had served in during the 1980s.
"As a joke, the recruiter asked if I was interested in joining up," said Tammi Johnson, who first joined the Air Force in 1983. "I laughed it off at first, but then he started asking questions about my age and how long I had previously served."
During her previous stint, Tammi Johnson had served in the personnel field, but had always been interested in the security force.
When Derrick joined the security forces, the recruiter told her there were positions still available. She left the meeting pondering a return to military life. Becoming a reservist would allow her to maintain her job working for the school district in Moore, Oklahoma while also serving her country.
"I hemmed-and-hawed about it … My son was joining the same career field, but I knew we'd be stationed at different places, so I decided to just do it."
Both Johnsons joined the Air Force Reserve in spring 2006.
Tammi Johnson had some maternal concerns when Derrick received his Iraq deployment orders last summer, and she wished she could have deployed first. What reassured her was knowing his training would serve him well, bacause she had received the same training..
Derrick says he has received some joshing from fellow airmen who ask, "'Is your mommy here to replace you yet?"
He says some of his friends back home who also serve in the military have had a hard time picturing their mothers in Iraq "with a helmet, weapon and flak vest. None of that bothers me though," he said. "It brings us closer together, which is what matters most."
Both Johnsons see their deployments as a positive for their relationship.
"How many mothers and sons can say they were together in the same place in a war zone?" Derrick said.
"You have to find the right balance, because she is my mother and we are working side-by-side," he said. "She understands and listens to the experiences I've encountered, which will help her. But really, she outranks me on many different levels. You can never outrank your mother."