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Helping Veterans with the Ashton Johnson Memorial CloudDancer Scholarship

Helping Veterans with the Ashton Johnson Memorial CloudDancer Scholarship

Joey Johnson’s passion for flying ignited right after high school, spurred by a fascination with airplanes that began in his teenage years. He dove into official pilot training during his first year of college, earning his pilot’s license shortly after turning 18. This accomplishment led him to a dedicated flight school in Tennessee, where he completed his ratings. Starting as a flight instructor, Joey built up his flight hours and moved on to a corporate flying position, a common step for aspiring pilots. His career took off as he joined a regional airline and eventually American Airlines, where he continued to soar.

Joey’s son, Ashton, mirrored his father’s adventurous spirit, demonstrating a zest for life and a penchant for challenges. From an early age, Ashton was deeply involved in sports, playing everything from church basketball and Pee Wee T-ball to soccer and ice hockey. His athletic journey took a professional turn with paintball, where he played for the San Antonio X Factor and was recognized as a promising talent. Despite a setback from a broken ankle, he shifted his focus to bodybuilding, joined the army, and eventually pursued a career in flying, showcasing his determination and adaptability.

Ashton was regarded as having an extroverted and friendly demeanor, and he was well-known for his capacity to make friends with everyone and his kind nature, which won over many people to him. Whether it was interacting with spectators or passing out gear at paintball fields, he was always willing to help. 

Joey Johnson recalls being in a modest military background, with his stepbrother in the Air Force and several uncles who served. Joey himself considered the Air Force before pursuing a civilian flying career. Ashton’s military career, though brief, was marked by rapid advancement during his four-year service. He chose not to extend his commitment for another six years, opting instead to use his GI Bill benefits for school and flight training. However, they faced challenges as the GI Bill did not cover the initial costs of flight training, which required creative financial navigation.

Joeys encouragement played a crucial role in Ashton’s pursuit of aviation. Initially uninterested in flying, Ashtons perspective changed after excelling in the Army and receiving encouragement from his commanding officer. Joey supported Ashton by purchasing an airplane and beginning his flight training, though deployment interrupted this progress. Post-military, Ashton remained committed to aviation, planning to complete his training despite financial hurdles. Tragically, Ashton was a third of the way through his certification process when he took his life, leaving behind a legacy of determination and passion for flying.

Ashton’s visitation was overwhelmingly attended, demonstrating the wide range of people he touched. There were about 600 individuals in line that went around the building, signing the guest roster despite the intense rain many were carrying umbrellas. 

“The funeral director mentioned that she had never seen so many people come to a visitation before,” Joey recalled. 

Due to COVID-19-related delays, Ashton’s visitation was held about one week after his death on October 4, 2021, and he was buried at the Dallas military cemetery on October 21, 2021.

The diverse crowd reflected Ashton’s wide-reaching impact. Attendees included family from both his mother’s and father’s sides, as well as Joey’s wifes extended family. His military comrades traveled from bases in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and El Paso to pay their respects. His paintball community, where he had recently started coaching and mentoring, showed strong support, as did his aviation family, comprising Joey’s friends and colleagues from the aviation sector. 

“The large turnout at the visitation reflected the number of lives he touched,” Joey noted. “We stood and shook hands all night, with people continuously coming through to pay their respects and offer condolences.”

During the visitation, the notion to establish a scholarship in Ashton’s honor surfaced. Following hours of mourning, Joey was asked how they could memorialize Ashton. This led him to choose to establish a scholarship to assist future pilots who are struggling financially. Joey said that Ashton developed PTSD as a result of his military experiences, which included surviving a mortar bombardment and seeing the atrocities of war. “These experiences made it clear to me how much he went through,” Joey said. Joey created the scholarship with the intention of encouraging others to follow their aspirations in aviation, even in the face of potential financial obstacles.

Ashton felt pressured by societal expectations, worried he was falling behind at 28 compared to peers who had bought homes, gotten married, and established careers. Joey reassured him of his accomplishments, including his four years of Army service and pursuit of education. After Ashton’s death, Joey wanted to ensure that veterans wouldn’t have to worry about achieving success, especially those who risked their lives and weren’t receiving adequate benefits. The scholarship focuses on veterans aspiring to become professional pilots. Notably, the VA doesn’t cover initial flight training costs, only providing support after the basic training level, which veterans must fund out-of-pocket.

The scholarship aims to bridge this gap by funding veterans’ primary flight training, enabling them to access their GI Bill benefits for further education and flight training. 

In 2024, Joey Johnson’s charity will be making a bigger difference by giving $10,000 scholarships to five deserving students. These scholarships, which are awarded in accordance with particular flight training milestones, are intended to assist veterans who are pursuing careers in aviation. Each recipient will receive the following amounts upon completing the corresponding tasks:

Upon selection and completion of PPL written – $3,000

Completion of First Solo – $3,000

Completion of Solo Cross Country (XC) – $2,000

Completion of Check Ride – $2,000

Joey Johnson’s nonprofit holds several events annually, each bringing its own successes and lessons. One key event is the crawfish cookout, which evolved from an annual fellowship at the airport into a fundraiser for the scholarship, inspired by a friend’s suggestion. The inaugural cookout fundraiser generated a couple of thousand dollars, prompting Joey to organize a more formal event: the first Gala. With a “Black Tie and Boots” theme, the event brought in $65,000, leaving slightly under $50,000 after expenses. Motivated by this triumph, the Gala event the next year increased in magnitude, drawing performers and members of the casts of “Yellowstone” and “1883,” raising $170,000 in gross and netting $132,000.

The crawfish cookout has continued to grow in popularity and impact. Last year, it raised $3,000, and this year, despite challenging weather conditions, over 500 attendees helped raise $8,000. The Gala, retaining its “Black Tie and Boots” theme and hosted in the stockyards to enhance the cowboy atmosphere, has seen increased corporate and celebrity involvement. Joey expressed high hopes for the upcoming event, aiming to generate at least $200,000 and possibly reaching a quarter of a million dollars. “We’ve learned that there are always successes and lessons with each event. People will promise to help, but when its time to deliver, you find out who your true volunteers and supporters are,” Joey noted.

These events have not only served as significant fundraisers but have also become community gatherings that honor Ashton’s memory and support veterans pursuing aviation careers. Joey emphasized the importance of reliable support and the potential for significant growth, with each event demonstrating the community’s dedication to their cause.

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