Mark Johnson IV often ended his conversations with his mother through text message or email with the same request: to take care of his wife and children if anything should ever happen.
It’s a promise Eva Curtis made to her son, and now a Mount Pleasant man Johnson never met also is helping fulfill that vow, using his own losses in life to fuel that mission.
Tim Gansrow, who is one of the owners of Pro Performance Athletics, along with his partner and employees, are hosting a softball tournament and banquet later this month to benefit Johnson’s wife and children.
The death of the 29-year-old Marine Corps soldier, who grew up in Goose Creek, came as a shock to his family. Curtis said Johnson knew his job carried risks, which is why he asked her to look after his wife and children. But he’d already made it out of one war alive. So no one ever imagined he’d be killed during a humanitarian aid mission.
Earlier this year, Johnson had been deployed to Nepal in the wake of two deadly and destructive earthquakes. The military helped deliver disaster aid to some rural communities.
“When he went to Afghanistan, I was always glued to the TV,” said Curtis. “When he said he was going to Nepal to help, I said, ‘That’s my boy. That’s Mark.’ ”
The UH-1Y helicopter Johnson was aboard went missing May 12 and was found a few days later eight miles north of Charikot, Nepal. Johnson was killed along with five others from the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron and two Nepalese soldiers who were also onboard.
The outpouring of support and messages following Johnson’s death has provided Curtis strength in her sorrow. As Johnson’s casket was transported from Savannah to the memorial site in Beaufort, crowds lined the streets and saluted the fallen soldier.
“That was overwhelming for us,” said Curtis. “There were firetrucks and flags. It was beautiful.”
Support continued to pour in through messages and well wishes. Then, recently Curtis received a call from WCIV-TV anchor Dean Stephens. He had interviewed Johnson’s family following the death. He told Curtis he’d been contacted by Gansrow, of Pro Performance, who had seen the story on the news and decided this was the family he wanted to honor with this year’s benefit tournament and banquet.
What Curtis didn’t know was Gansrow shared something in common with her son; they both were willing to make sacrifices in the line of duty.
For Gansrow, the date of this year’s benefit, Sept. 11, has a deep meaning. The now 45-year-old was a law enforcement officer in New York City the day the Twin Towers were hit and he was a first responder at ground zero.
Gansrow’s first partner as a police officer and business partner at the time also was on the ground. Gansrow said he watched his partner run in and out of one of the towers getting people out to safety.
“The next time he went into the building, the building collapsed,” he said.
Gansrow lost his partner and friend that day. Years later, the terrorist attack would continue to haunt him, as he was diagnosed with cancer as a result of his work at ground zero, he said.
“When I was really sick, we were having financial problems, burning through money. I had to sell my business,” he said. “I was in pretty bad shape.”
His coworkers in the law enforcement field held a benefit in Gansrow’s honor and he said it turned his life around.
“That really helped my family. You kind of felt the love at a time of great need. I was pretty sick at the time, but you don’t forget that feeling,” he said. “Our lives changed so much for the better. I would not be here for those things not happening and I knew I was going to have to pay it forward. “
So when Josh McLaughlin, a trainer at Pro Performance, suggested to Gansrow they start a benefit for Wounded Warriors, a tradition was born.
However, Gansrow said he wanted to take it a step further. He wanted to make sure they were helping someone in their own community, either a wounded warrior or the family of a soldier that had been killed.
They started the benefit, Step Up to the Plate Charity Tournament, last year for a local Marine Corps soldier who had been injured by shrapnel. The weight of what it meant was realized during a special moment when spectators and participants lined the softball field’s sidewalks carrying American flags to welcome the wounded soldier and his family.
“We are walking behind the soldier and his little boy looks at his dad and said, ‘Is my daddy a hero?’ As soon as he said it, I could feel my lip quiver and I was about to be in tears,” said Gansrow. “He looked at his dad and very loudly said, ‘My daddy saved the world.’ From that point forward, I said we got this right.”
Gansrow and his crew plan to line the sidewalk during every year’s tournament so “that the families that go through this horror can feel this love,” he said.
Curtis said she has no words to describe what it means to her for Pro Performance to hold this benefit in her son’s honor.
“I think what they are doing is a great cause, not just for my son, but for future families,” she said. “People should be supportive of our military.”
Despite the utter heartache caused by Johnson’s death, Curtis finds some solace in knowing her son died with a purpose.
“I know that he was doing what he loved,” she said.
Curtis, who moved from Utah to Goose Creek to be nearer to her daughter-in-law, Haley Lynn Vaughters Johnson, and her two grandsons, Nate and Noah. She also feels a greater sense of purpose after her son’s death. It’s one bestowed upon her by her son’s wishes to watch over his family, and it’s a promise she intends to keep.