When Myeshia Johnson took the stage at the City of Miami Gardens' Memorial Day breakfast to accept the inaugural award named after her late husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, she was too overcome with emotion to address the audience.
Instead, Myeshia took the award — a crystal eagle with its majestic wings spread wide — and said a few words to Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert before returning to the table where her three children sat: 6-year-old Ah'Leesya, 3-year-old La David Jr., and the infant La'Shee, who never met her father because she was born after he was killed in action in Niger on Oct. 4, 2017.
Later, after the event wrapped up, Myeshia was able to speak to the press for a few moments.
"My husband always told me that he was going to be famous, but I [never thought] it would be under these circumstances," she said. "My husband is a man of many talents. He is an awesome father, husband and brother, and an awesome soldier. This [award] just recognized all his accomplishments and everything that he put his hard work into."
More than 250 people crammed into the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex on Monday morning to honor the fallen 25-year-old serviceman whose death during a military ambush made national news last year.
Mayor Gilbert remembered Johnson as a well-liked young man who was known in the neighborhood as "Wheelie King" for his penchant for bicycle tricks. Gilbert said Johnson was working at the produce department at Walmart when he enlisted in the U.S. Army on Jan. 28, 2014.
"There’s a special sacrifice when someone gives their life in service to their country, their fellow citizens and the idea of what America is and what we can be," said the mayor, who announced that the annual Miami Gardens event, now in its 13th year, would be known as the Sgt. La David T. Johnson Memorial Day Breakfast in perpetuity.
"Sgt. Johnson was a kid who loved riding dirt bikes, who had a family that loved him and kids who adored him,'' he said. "It's only fitting that his neighbors acknowledge his sacrifice. I want to make sure people never forget him."
Johnson and three other U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush by members of an Islamic State offshoot during an operation by an 11-member Army unit. The soldiers were escorting 30 Nigerien troops through an area 120 miles north of Niamey. Two other U.S. soldiers and eight Nigerien forces were wounded in the attack. Johnson's body was found two days after the attack under some brush, where he had sought cover from enemy fire.
Although Johnson was the emotional focus of the event, the rest of the Memorial Day breakfast honored the legacy and history of the 113,000 Miami Gardens residents, many of whom are African American. Two local Girl Scout Troops led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. The audience stood for Humphrey Allen's rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner," followed by the Negro National Anthem.
"It's important to understand we are all Americans, and that anthem charts our journey in this America," said Carlene C. Wright, who served as mistress of ceremonies throughout the event.
The crowd, which ranged in age from octogenarians to toddlers, were served a breakfast of eggs, croissants, coffee, juice and yogurt. Military veterans who attended the event were given a medal to wear around their neck on a ribbon, so they would easy to spot in the crowd.
One of them was Lt. Colonel George Stewart, who turns 71 in July. He served in the Air Force from 1965-1969, where he provided support for air missions in Southeast Asia out of Thailand, and several decades in the National Guard Reserve after that.
"Memorial Day is a recognition to both people who are still serving and those who served in the past," he said. "It's for the living, but it's for the fallen, too. I left a lot of brothers still serving back in Vietnam when I got out in 1969. Some of them are no longer here."
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Harry "Bo" Stanfield, the event's keynote speaker, talked about the origin of the Memorial Day holiday, which was originally known as Decoration Day, and sprinkled humorous anecdotes into his personal recollections of his military career.
"We know nothing of their individual thoughts at their time of death," he said about every soldier who had sacrificed their life for America. "But we do know their courage."
The gospel ensemble Zondre and the Unstoppable Praise performed four songs, including "Put a Praise On It" and "Your Great Name," which sent the crowd dancing and singing and ended the gathering on a joyful, spiritual note.
Even Johnson's widow, Myeshia, seemed to draw strength from the communal vibe in the large auditorium, managing a smile, and then a grin, for the cameras.
"I’m very thankful, because I know my husband would have appreciated you guys honoring him," she said as the nearly three-hour breakfast wrapped up. "My family [and I] appreciate everything Miami Gardens has done for me and my husband, because we were born and raised here. This is our hometown. So from now on, I will celebrate Memorial Day with my kids and my family as a tradition honoring my husband, Sgt. La David Johnson."