CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- To most Marines it's just a 3.5-pound piece of Kevlar that keeps the shrapnel and bullets at bay. But, to one Marine here, his helmet serves a link to the past.
It doesn't quite fit his head, but he has vowed to never trade it in because it's the same helmet that was worn by the man who first taught him about the Corps.
Growing up in Bixby, Okla., Sgt. Jacob Johnston knew from the time he was 4 years old, that he wanted to be in the military.
That was when he first heard the Lee Greenwood song; "Proud to be an American," which first sparked his dream of serving his country.
When he was in the fourth grade he met Brady Redus, an older boy who helped give that dream direction.
Redus, whose father had served in the Marines, played football with Johnston's older brothers. He took the time to share his knowledge of the Corps and his family's history with Johnston.
"He was someone you want to be around," said Johnston. He was "always a leader, always looking to be the best and have a good time while doing it."
By being a role model, Redus helped Johnston to focus on his goal.
"It's something that just sparked a light in me," Johnston said. "Since the fourth grade I've wanted to be in the Marines."
Redus planned to join the Marines when he was old enough. Johnston wanted to be just like him.
That feeling that was reinforced when Redus returned from boot camp.
"He had barely changed, but now he had a sense of pride about him," Johnston said.
Seeing that small difference removed any doubt from Johnston's mind about the path he wanted to follow.
After his junior year of high school, Johnston enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. But, he had to wait until he graduated to leave for boot camp.
During his last year of school, Johnston was allowed to attend the monthly training sessions at the local reserve unit, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment's anti-tank missile platoon in Broken Arrow, Okla.
The first time Johnston went to the unit, he felt lost and out of place. At school he was well known and liked. At the unit he was at the bottom of the heap.
The situation changed when a familiar voice shouted out to Johnston later that first day. It was Redus. Having finished his time on active duty he had decided to join the reserves to maintain a connection with the Corps.
Though he had been gone for almost four years Redus recognized Johnston right away and called him over to find out what he was doing there.
"I told him and he said 'Well, you're going to be with me,'" said Johnston. "It was a great feeling."
As a civilian, who had not been to boot camp yet, Johnston was the most junior man at the unit. This could have limited his opportunities to get early training on the weapons and vehicles he would be using when he became a Marine, but thanks to Redus, it didn't.
"He let me do stuff that some of the other guys weren't getting to do," Johnston said. "He acted like a big brother really."
Soon enough, the time came for Johnston to leave for boot camp.
The day Johnston returned from his training to check in to the reserve unit as a Marine, Redus was checking out to pursue a career as a firefighter in Sapulpa, Okla.
The two Marines didn't have enough time for more than a brief conversation, during which Redus apologized for having to leave right when Johnston was getting to the unit. He promised the younger Marine that he would be well taken care of.
Johnston was in such a rush checking in that he didn't closely examine his newly issued gear until he was at home later that night.
"On the back of the helmet, it said "Cpl Redus," Johnston said.
To this day, Johnston still doesn't know if he got the helmet through blind chance, or if Redus left instructions for the supply section to give his helmet to Johnston.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he had said that. I wouldn't put it past him," Johnston said.
Redus still works at the Sapulpa Fire Department. Johnston ran into him when the fire department was helping the reserve unit with the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program for Christmas 2003, just before Johnston deployed to Iraq.
Johnston still hears from Redus, though not directly.
"He's stopped by my parents' work since I've been gone and just checked in to see how I'm doing," Johnston said.
At 24, Johnston is now a vehicle commander for 3/24's Combined Anti-Armor Tank Platoon here. Through his ensuing seven years of service, he has kept the helmet as a reminder of his mentor.
"When I have to take my gear in, I'm going to go buy a different Kevlar and turn that piece of gear in and keep the one that was issued to me," Johnston promised. "Unless I find somebody else ... and then pass it on down."