It was the “ops” in “peace ops” that drew Gail Johnson to the Peace Operations Program at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs.
“It meant I would get to do something, to tactically use the degree,” she said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be called ‘ops’; you wouldn’t be operating anything—you would be thinking about it, writing papers. I want to go where the action is.”
At age 69—she's 72 now—Johnson has had careers already in the Navy, the nonprofit sector, education and business, as well as motherhood. She graduated from George Mason in 2012 and went in search of a conflict zone where she could put her master’s degree to use. And she found it in Rutland, Vt., a region ravaged by heroin.
Heroin addiction is responsible for an unprecedented spike in crime, deaths and incarcerations in recent years, producing a grim emergency in the Green Mountain State. For Johnson, discovering this crisis was an “aha moment”—when it dawned on her that she would have to move there.
“I figured if you’re going to do this work, you need to be in the center of it all, so that’s what I chose,” she said. “U.S. peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers live among the populations they serve [in overseas war zones], and the same holds true domestically. It builds trust and community connectedness.”
Word of the determined septuagenarian who was helping to shut down drug and prostitution houses got around, and her phone started ringing. Everyone from probation officers to the mayor wanted to know her story. Johnson welcomed all the fuss.
“Now I work with law enforcement, community groups, service providers, residents—all those wonderful people who are trying so desperately to bring a halt to this epidemic,” she said. “It’s everything I dreamed of, and [Mason] prepared me for this.”
“Gail is a community builder who doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk,” said Rutland mayor Christopher Louras. “She’s bringing together diverse individuals in the community and reestablishing connections for public trust.”
Johnson is a key player in Rutland’s community response program called Project Vision, now a national model for fighting municipal opiate epidemics. Louras said the program, which started in 2012, has reduced crime statistics in every area.
“And Gail is part of that,” he added.
One of Johnson’s Mason professors, crime and corruption expert Janine Wedel, said she is not surprised that Johnson is engaged in her Rutland activities.
“I’m delighted she’s making important contributions,” Wedel said. “She’s very smart, innovative and has a preserving spirit.”
“I’m really enjoying what I’m doing with this degree,” Johnson said, “and I want to work in this field until my working days are over.”
Additional reporting by Buzz McClain.