MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO --
Forced to fend for himself when his parents were no longer up for the challenge, Pvt. Dimitri Johnston, Platoon 3254, Company L, was exposed to the horrors of the world at a young age.
Johnston, 20, remembers his abusive, alcoholic parents arguing all the time. He remembers his unemployed father taking his mother’s hard-earned money to buy vodka instead of food for their three children. Johnston never spent a day in school before the age of nine.
His childhood abuse eventually led him to an orphanage in his native hometown of Shuya, Russia.
The kids at the orphanage fought a lot, according to Johnston. They had to fight for the little space that was to be divvied up between the 30 of them.
“You had to grow up tough in there,” said Johnston. “You had to defend yourself.”
The students at the orphanage saw right away that Johnston was bright, one of the top in his class. He said he was respected for his brains and often was asked to assist the others with their school work.
Johnston received monthly visits from his mother, mainly to drop off a small portion of money for his day-to-day spending and other expenses. Other than that, Johnston had no contact with family members to include his father, and his two older sisters who stayed at home.
“It was hard for me to be away from my family, even if they were abusive,” said Johnston.
He remained in the orphanage until he turned 15, when he met an American couple on vacation in Russia. Through a translator, they carried on a conversation and sparked each other’s interest.
Six months later, the American couple, John and Jennifer Johnston, returned to Russia and adopted him.
The Johnstons had no biological children, but did have two other Russian children they had adopted three years earlier.
“When we met him we were on a missions trip,” said Jennifer Johnston. “My husband and I met him separately, different times of the day and out of the 350 kids we met that week, he stood out to us. We didn’t intend on adopting again.”
“It was hard leaving my friends, but I knew a better life was waiting for me,” said Johnston.
His adoption couldn’t have come at a better time, Johnston said. He was at the age where he was faced with finding a trade school and leaving the orphanage, a problem that often meets failure with children from broken families.
Orphans are labeled with a bad reputation for being rowdy, abusive, alcoholics, and aren’t always given a fair chance, Johnson said. Many of them end up on the streets.
When Johnston arrived in Devison, Mich., with his new American family, he was tutored for a year. His tutor, a Russian native as well, taught him how to speak English. After a year with his tutor, he was sent to a private Christian school.
Even though he is “living the good life” Johnston admits he still reminisces on his past.
“Many times I wonder what would happen if I didn’t leave Russia,” said Johnston. “I saw myself graduating, learning a trade and doing some kind of manual labor, construction or something. But I wouldn’t trade it for what I have now. I have a future ahead of me.”
He planned to go to college after graduating from high school, but was open to the opportunities the Marine Corps presented.
The Marine Corps could give him an new outlook on life, teach him respect and test his physical abilities. He decided to pass on college for the time being and strap on some combat boots to help defend his adopted nation.
When he arrived at the depot, he said his biggest problem was submitting to leadership and recognizing the fact that the drill instructors were in charge. He had trouble doing what he was told and not what he thought was right.
After being corrected by his drill instructors he learned to never make the same mistake twice.
Having learned to follow orders, Johnston said he took pride in accomplishing tasks as a team. He saw the bigger picture for once in his life.
His adoptive parents remained supportive throughout boot camp sending inspirational letters and expressing their pride in their son.
“It was hard when he went to boot camp,” said Jennifer. “We waited so long for him to come to us and he has been with us so short of time. We are very proud of him and we support his decision.”
Johnston sent his two younger adopted brothers prayer dog tags he received at recruit religious services and said he learned through them that you don’t have to be physically abusive to be a good leader. He sees how much they look up to him and wants to set a good example.
Johnston enlisted for five years as an aircraft mechanic. Although his mother was sad that she only got to spend five years with him before he left for the Marines, she is proud and knows that he will benefit from the lessons he learns in the Corps.
He said his time in the Marine Corps will be served with dignity and respect for the nation he now calls home.