- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

WEST MONROE, La. (AP) - A very funny man with a heart of gold. A great friend. Someone who always gave back to the community.

That was how friends and family described Johnathan “Balloonatic” Darden, a Shreveport resident who was found dead on May 13 inside his vehicle along Interstate 20 in West Monroe.

The Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office has not yet released autopsy results, but a spokesperson said no foul play is suspected. An investigation is ongoing.

Darden’s death came as a shock to many- even those who knew the Army veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from his four years in the service. Friends said they hope Darden is remembered as a veterans’ rights advocate, an out-of-the box thinker who made the world a better place and an accepting and empowering friend.

A veterans rights advocate

Ben Arnold, a Shreveport resident and veteran, said he met Darden last year at the Allendale Celebration of Life Memorial Day Event, a celebration that honored veterans who lost their lives after returning home from war.

Arnold said that Darden was “quick to volunteer” and “glad to lend his services” at the event. The two also spoke about Darden’s hobby of making balloon animals and dresses.

“He said working with balloons helps him cope, especially seeing the happiness they brought to others,” Arnold remembered. “It was evident, however, at our event that he was very sad and disturbed by his experiences while serving. I know he’s in a better place now, if only to be given rest from the pain he bore.”

Darden loved the color green — a color associated with veterans’ support — as evidenced by his bright green hair and beard. During his life, Darden was a voice for veterans, frequently reaching out on their behalf or offering support when he could.

Last March, Darden wrote to the Times when fireworks were set off unexpectedly in Shreveport as part of a fundraiser. Veterans suffering from PTSD need time and notice to prepare emotionally before events involving loud noises, Darden explained.

Following the event, Darden created an online petition to the White House, asking for a law where those who receive permits for fireworks are required to notify the local veterans’ administration, so the administration can then notify veterans prior to the event.

The petition garnered more than two dozen signatures in the first few days.

Chad Darden remembered his brother as someone who loved people in general, as well as his friends and family.

“My brother was a loving and caring person that would do anything for anybody,” Chad Darden said.

Ambré Tubbs Lomas, whose veteran son Patrick Tubbs committed suicide several years ago, said Darden helped her family through their intense emotions in the first few days following his death. Darden also helped the family set up a Go Fund Me account to find the funds to bring her son’s body back from Kansas and also organized a walk in his honor.

“He was just always trying to do good things for the community and the kids. We’re just all devastated,” Lomas said. “He had incredible energy and he spread that out, and bless his heart, I think he just didn’t have enough energy for himself.”

An out-of-the box thinker

Darden also is well known in the Shreveport community for being “The Balloon Guy.”

A Times article from last year related that after 15 years of making balloon animals for children at birthday parties, Darden was inspired by a child’s request to elevate his creativity to the next level.

A little girl in the balloon line asked for him to make her a dress out of balloons.

“I told her if she could find a picture of it and send it to me, I’d see if I could do it,” Darden told a Times reporter in 2016. “At the end of the birthday party, she had her iPod and was showing me all these balloon dresses. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got to figure this out.’”

The spark of that idea morphed into a line of balloon dress fashions that the Times described as “Bold, fierce, fashion.” Darden’s creations were featured during Oneofakind Baton Rouge Fashion Week last year.

Jami Harbin’s now 16-year-old daughter Daylyn was one of the young women who modeled his dresses. Harbin said Darden not only helped her daughter go after her dreams of modeling- he also became a friend and mentor to her daughter and helped her through rough times.

“They became inseparable,” Harbin said. “He had a big heart. He touched so many lives.”

Daylyn Harbin said she would self-harm before she met Darden. But he helped convince her that hurting herself to cope with life’s problems “wasn’t worth it,” Daylin said.

“He was a really great man. When I was modeling, I had fun. He helped me make balloon animals and dresses,” Daylyn said. “He was like a big brother to me.”

Darden’s friend Bradley Duane Bolls remembers meeting him at an event where Darden was making his famous balloon creations.

“He was an awesome man and a great friend,” Bolls said.

An accepting and empowering friend

Cassie McDaniel, a Shreveport resident who met Darden several years ago while selling her jewelry at a downtown event, remembered him as a “very friendly and helpful” person who always made her feel welcomed.

Darden made a striking impression on her because he was the first veteran she had ever met who spoke openly about having post-traumatic stress disorder, McDaniel said.

But she added that Darden was never somber or morose around her.

“Every time I saw him, he had a smile and a hug for me,” McDaniel said. “He was open, and caring, and he will be missed.”

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