Want to help?

Old Fort Fire Department Engineer John “J.J.” Johnston is walking the two-day, 39.3-mile Avon Walk for Breast Cancer on May 4 and 5 in almost full gear.

He hopes to raise $1,800. As of Wednesday, $750 had been pledged.

If you want to donate, go to www.avonwalk.org/ and search for “John Johnston” or visit http://bit.ly/11BXSyY.

Old Fort Fire Department Engineer John “J.J.” Johnston feels so strongly about fighting breast cancer that he shocked the station, including the chief, when he arrived last October with a head of pink-dyed hair.

He chuckles when recalling that the dye job lasted for weeks past Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

But the pink hairdo is not nearly as radical as his latest endeavor.

The 40-year-old father of two plans to walk the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, 39.3 miles in two days, on May 4 and 5 in Washington, D.C., in his fire gear (sans boots).

The gear — his jacket, bunker pants, air pack and pink helmet — weighs about 80 pounds and can get rather stuffy. Sweat and rain can add another 20 pounds.

“I'm very excited about the event,” says Johnston, who wants to raise a modest $1,800 for the effort. “I've never done anything like this, but I feel very confident I can do it.”

The drive

Johnston, who has walked the Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure in gear the past two years, is compelled to near self-torture for two very big reasons.

First, he lost his father, Floyd Johnston, a Marine for 30 years, to liver cancer in 2007. Then the firefighter watched his neighbor, Michelle Kelley, and her young family suffer from the effects of breast cancer for more than three years before she died on Oct. 24, 2011, at the age of 31.

The date happened to be National Pink Ribbon Day in 2011.

Her husband, Mike Kelley, remains traumatized from the experience, which included 18 surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, more than 50 hospitalizations, and an uncountable number of trips to the emergency room.

“We had a perfect life before breast cancer,” says Kelley of a family with three kids, a nice home in Summerville and a prosperous career. “It vanished after cancer.”

Kelly finds comfort in the effort that Johnston puts into Komen and now Avon.

Firefighter DNA?

Old Fort Fire Chief Ed Genthert doesn't seem too surprised by Johnston's endeavor, except for last year's pink hair display.

“One thing about firefighters, we're all very human,” says Genthert of their tendency to go the extra mile to help those in need.

“Jay (J.J.) has some really strong convictions, and we support that when firefighters dedicate themselves to public service for this amount of time. They lose a lot of family time. Then they turn around and support charities and efforts of other firefighters.”

About 10 crew members of Old Fort have joined Johnston on his Komen walks the past two years and have raised about $100 for his Avon walk.

“We fully support Jay's efforts. It's a marvelous thing,” Genthert says.

Back in D.C.

Johnston chose the Avon Walk in Washington because his mother still lives there and he wants to pay a visit to his father's gravesite in Quantico, Va.

“He was a great guy and I miss him,” says Johnston.

He also looks forward to attending the opening ceremony for the Avon Walk on May 3 and staying in the pink tents of a “wellness village” in Bethesda, Md.

“From what I gather, it's very nice. The atmosphere is electric. They say it's once-in-a-lifetime,” says Johnston, noting that it may motivate him to work even harder.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.