98-year-old Gardens vet’s charity gets a $20,000 boost for his birthday

10:54 a.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 Local
Howard “Scrappy” Johnson, 95, and wife Elena, 86, of Palm Beach Gardens, during the Veterans Day Parade in West Palm Beach on Nov. 8, 2015. The Johnsons started a new non-profit that aims to provide household furnishings for veterans. Howard “Scrappy” Johnson is a retired Air Force pilot that flew more than 100 missions in Vietnam and many in Korea. (Brianna Soukup / Palm Beach Post)

Col. Howard “Scrappy” Johnson received two $10,000 checks for his 98th birthday, but the money wasn’t for him.

RELATED: Joint Mission: Palm Beach Gardens couple makes difference for veterans

It’s for Joint Mission, the charity he and his wife, Elena, started to provide home furnishings for veterans in 2015. The nonprofit organization has helped more than 300 veterans from Miami-Dade County to St. Lucie County since its inception, Johnson said.

RELATED: Elena Johnson, north county entrepreneur and designer, dies at 86

A vodka company donated the first $10,000, and an anonymous benefactor matched it, Joint Mission board member Annie Marie Delgado said.

Elena, an interior designer and the founder of True Treasures consignment shops, worked on Joint Mission until she died of pancreatic cancer in August 2016. Carrying out her mission became Johnson’s reason for living, his step-daughter Kathryn O’Brien said.

“A lot of veterans don’t have good jobs. Maybe they don’t have any jobs,” Johnson said. “I try to keep it going because of her.”

In his previous missions, the retired Air Force colonel flew 7,000 hours in 15 fighter planes. He trained pilots in World War II and flew fighter planes in Korea and Vietnam.

He set a world altitude record in 1958 by flying to 91,249 feet in a F-104 Starfighter.

“They knew there would be a lot of pictures taken after — and there were — and I was the best-looking,” Johnson quipped.

Scrappy reminisced about his Air Force days at his birthday party Friday at Carmine’s La Trattoria, as much a celebration of the charity’s impact as another year of life.

Bobby Brooks had a place to live but nothing to put in it when he first met the couple. He had recovered from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in a parachute accident in Afghanistan. He learned to swallow, walk and talk again, only to suffer two strokes years later.

“I was at the lowest point in my life,” Brooks said. “I didn’t want to live.”

Elena showed up at his house with a bed, nightstand and other furniture and shared a Bible verse about hope and faith.

Now, Brooks and a business partner plan to offer transitional housing for veterans in the historic Cracker Johnson House in West Palm Beach. Joint Mission will furnish the five-bedroom, three-bathroom house, O’Brien said.

Brooks wants to “breathe hope” to the people who come into the house, just like Elena did for him.

When veterans qualify for housing assistance and Department of Veterans Affairs support services, Joint Mission meets with them and identifies their needs. Some of them have nothing but a box and a sleeping bag, O’Brien said.

Donations are stored and sorted in a warehouse in Lake Park before they’re moved into a veteran’s home.

Home goods and money are both welcome. Almost everyone needs kitchen ware, Delgado, the board member, said.

Delgado rubbed shoulders with executives from Salute American Vodka when she planned an inauguration celebration at Mar-a-Lago as the Florida grassroots and coalitions director for Donald Trump’s campaign.

Delgado mentioned Joint Mission to them, and their team flew in to meet Scrappy and present a check Jan. 18 at the Palm Beach Yacht Club.

The vodka company gives $1 from every bottle sold to veterans organizations and “other American heroes in their pursuit of an education, career success and the American dream,” according to its website.