Graduating CSU Commencement special day for firefighter

Brandon Johnston, a firefighter with the St. Johns Fire District, will graduate from Charleston Southern University today with a degree in criminal justice. He’s a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq.

Grace Beahm

Brandon Johnston is tough by anyone’s standards.

The former Marine survived two tours in Iraq, and he faces deadly situations every day as he battles fires for the St. Johns Fire District.

But he was terrified in 2009 when he first walked into a classroom at Charleston Southern University and took a seat alongside much younger students. “It was a lot more scary than going to Iraq,” he said.

Johnston, 27, conquered his fear and became a stellar student, despite also having family responsibilities and holding down a full-time job. He earned a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice, and will be one of about 600 students graduating from Charleston Southern this year. The school is holding its commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. today at the North Charleston Coliseum.

“I was kind of like a kid afraid to jump in the swimming pool,” he said. “But once I did, the water was fine.”

Johnston initially decided to attend Charleston Southern because it was close to his Goose Creek home, unlike many of his fellow students who enrolled because it was a Christian college. He also thought the faculty and staff seemed very supportive, and that they were good at dealing with the needs of veterans and adult students.

That was especially important for the working husband and father of three children. He remembers early in his college years he missed a chemistry exam because he was delayed fighting a fire for the Goose Creek Rural Fire Department, for which he still volunteers.

After the blaze was out, he rushed to campus in his uniform, sweaty, covered in soot and smelling of smoke. When his professor let him take the exam late, he was certain he had selected the right school.

Jacqueline Fish, the university’s vice president of academic affairs and a forensics professor, said Johnston always was the top student in her classes. “I could count on him as a group leader,” she said.

Johnston is a natural leader and first-responder.

One evening a few years ago, a car hit a tree near his home. The car was on fire when he rushed to it and pulled out all three passengers, one of whom was unconscious, just before it burst into flames that shot 15 feet in the air. “You can still see the scars on the trees,” he said.

Johnston won a meritorious achievement award from the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association for his actions.

He knows he’s in the right field, and plans to remain at his job after he graduates. In the future, he would like to be an arson investigator for the State Law Enforcement Division, or move up to higher ranks in the fire service. Having a college degree will make those options possible for him.

And going to back to school and earning a degree set a good example for his children, who are 6, 4 and 2 years old, he said. His son once asked him why, as a grown-up, he still had to go to school. He responded, “Because you never stop learning.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.