Former Troubled Teen Turns Dedicated Soldier

As a teenager Cortez Johnson of Gautier admits he saw his share of trouble in South Mississippi.

"I was one of the bad guys. One of the ones getting back seat rides with the Police Officers," says Johnson.

Now as a twenty two year old Army specialist, Johnson says he's also seen real trouble on the war torn streets of Iraq.

"Baghdad is a very rough place," says the Gautier native. "I'm not even going to lie to you. It's rough. Mentally you've got to be tough. We fought in Sadir City for 2 months and then we fought in Faluja with the 1st Expedition Marines for about 2 months in Faluja."

Incredibly, he says returning for his third tour of duty in a war zone, which he's about to do, is a much better option for him than returning to his troubled past.

"I don't want to die on the street where somebody just blow man brains out and boom, ok, he's just another dead guy. Whoop-tee-do, Send him on his way. But if I go I want to go on this battlefield and it's honored."

Along with Army life, Cortez gives much of the credit for his transformation to a man named Thelton Moses. Moses is head of Adolescent Offender Program sponsored by the Mississippi Gulf Coast YMCA. The Adolescent Offender Program is a 12 month Federal Program for at risk teenagers referred by the youth court. He first met Cortez during his rebellious teenage years, but Moses says some tough love and Cortez's own desire to better himself are what helped make him the man he is today. "

He's a positive influence on any young man or young lady he comes in contact with, says Moses. "Cortez is only 22 years old and he wears his uniform proudly. 22 year old, and served in combat 3 different times. That's a lot to be said for a young man that was headed down the road to destruction say 5 years ago. He turned it around."

But as gung ho as Cortez is about doing his duty, his also very grounded in the reality that war sometimes demands the ultimate sacrifice.

"A guy from Jackson Mississippi named Specialist Larry K Brown, he passed away last year. That was one of my closest friends. We got to know each other cause we we're both from Mississippi. But in war you can't expect everybody to come home."

Still, one purple heart and countless close combat battles later, this young hero says there no place he'd rather be, than in the service of his country.

"I think the military has totally turned my life completely around. It reformed me."

That's a service Johnson says his country has done for him.

by Don Culpepper