They come from all walks of life.
Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American.
They are the young women and men who enlist in the U.S. military to make the world, and America, safe for democracy.
But, the horrible, hateful way that these young people who serve our country are treated is downright wrong and sadistic.
Pfc. Lavena Johnson was a young black woman from the St. Louis suburb of Florissant. She was an honor roll student, who loved playing the violin. She donated blood and volunteered for American Heart Association walks. Because she wanted to proudly serve her country in the armed forces, she elected to put off college for a while and joined the Army immediately after getting out of school. At Fort Campbell, KY, she was assigned as a weapons supply manager to the 129th Corps Support Battalion.
LaVena Johnson, private first class, died near Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005, just eight days shy of her twentieth birthday. She was the first woman soldier from Missouri to die while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
That this beautiful young woman’s story is so unheard of by so many people is reprehensible. Many people have certainly heard of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the soldier whose story was in many papers when it turned out he was killed by friendly fire.
Dr. John Johnson, Lavena’s father, was initially told by an Army representative, that his daughter “died of self-inflicted, noncombat injuries,” but initially added that it was not a suicide. The subsequent Army investigation reversed this finding and declared LaVena’s death a suicide, a finding refuted by the soldier’s family. In an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dr. Johnson pointed to indications that his daughter had endured a physical struggle before she died – two loose front teeth, a “busted lip” that had to be reconstructed by the funeral home – suggesting that “someone might have punched her in the mouth.”
Very little coverage has been given to Lavena’s story, until a St. Louis CBS affiliate KMOV news station aired a story which revealed details not previously made public – details which go against the Army’s contention that this young lady took her own life.
Parents question their daughter’s mysterious death in Iraq
10:27 PM CST on Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Click here to watch News 4 coverage(KMOV) — A year and a half ago, a 19-year-old Florissant woman became the first female from Missouri to die during the Iraq war.
The military was quick to point out that her death was not combat related.
Since then, her parents have struggled to find out what really happened to their daughter.
News 4’s Matt Sczesny took a close look at the evidence gathered by the military and asks the question, “was it murder or suicide?”
Among the thousands of graves at Jefferson Barracks cemetery there are stories of bravery, heroism, and proud service.
Among the thousands is the grave of Private Lavena Johnson, whose story is clouded in mystery and according to her parents, marred by murder and cover-up.
Lavena’s father, Dr. John Johnson, has waged his own personal crusade to find out what really happened to his daughter in Iraq on July 19, 2005.
The army ruled her death a suicide, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head.
In documents and autopsy photos obtained by the Johnson family and shared with News 4, more questions are raised than answered.
One strange fact was that Lavena was apparently abused, physically, and the autopsy didn’t address the physical trauma to her body.
Military documents also show no apparent indication of suicide, her company commander wrote that Johnson was clearly happy and healthy physically and emotionally, something her mother knew by a phone conversation the day before she died.
Johnson’s parents also question how their daughter at 5’1”, could handle a 40 inch M-16 to kill herself while sitting.
In fact, a military laboratory even concluded that based on a gunshot residue test, Johnson may not have even handled the weapon.
Additionally, Johnson’s military debit card was never found, even though she used it two hours before her death to buy candy.
No bullet was ever found where she died, and a trail of blood is seen in photos outside the tent. Even stranger, it appears as if someone tried to set her body on fire.
So if it wasn’t a suicide as the Army maintains, then how did Lavena Johnson die?
Based on the autopsy photos, her father believes that she was raped.
The military is unconvinced and consider the case closed.
A Pentagon spokesman says that the case was investigated thoroughly and that there is no evidence to reopen.
News 4 tried for weeks to get the Army to say more about the death of Private Johnson, but they’re only response is that the investigation is closed.
Certainly the documents military investigators have gathered seem to say a lot more.
Johnson’s father is now trying to have her body exhumed at Jefferson Barracks to have an independent autopsy performed.”
The video of the report is available on the KMOV website.
Reporter Matt Sczesny spoke with LaVena’s father and examined documents and photos sent by Army investigators. So far from supporting the claim that LaVena died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the documents provided elements of another scenario altogether:
- Indications of physical abuse that went unremarked by the autopsy
- The absence of psychological indicators of suicidal thoughts; indeed, testimony that LaVena was happy and healthy prior to her death
- Indications, via residue tests, that LaVena may not even have handled the weapon that killed her
- A blood trail outside the tent where Lavena’s body was found
- Indications that someone attenpted to set LaVena’s body on fire
The Army has resisted calls by Dr. Johnson and by KMOV to reopen its investigation.
There have been other military deaths that the Army has handled incompetently, most infamously that of Army Ranger and former professional football player Cpl. Pat Tillman, with the Army has engaging in an insulting game of deny, delay, dispute, when it comes to uncovering embarrassing facts that cost young soldiers their lives. Only when public and official attention is brought to bear on the matter – as happened, eventually and with great effort, with the case of Cpl. Tillman – do painful revelations come to light.
That it takes moral outrage, family vocalization, and community involvement to the government, to bring to bear upon the Army to find the truth, to tell the truth, to honor the men and women who put on the uniform to serve their country, says alot about the callousness of this country which saw fit to send these young women and men into a war with a country which has done no aggression against America. No huge outcry has yet come to bear in the case of LaVena. There are no loud chorus of voices demanding that the military be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof in the mishandling of this young woman’s case. Anyone, and everyone, can and should, speak for her. It may seem that the comparision between the cases of LaVena Johnson and Pat Tillman may seem unrelated, but both cases are the same. In both cases, the death of a young soldier in a dangerous place, in an unjustly declared rogue war, was not explained to the families they left behind, the families that gave them up to go halfway around the world to fight a war for oil, to put their lives on the line for those of us here in America. The Army should not be so cold and heartless in how it disregards its soldiers. It is not too much to ask that the Army take into consideration all evidence of this young woman’s death. (The attempt to set her body on fire; the trail of blood found outside of her living area.) That her family has many unanswered questions surrounding her death, and the inept handling of Lavena’s case (judging by the evidence left at the scene of her death )by the military, speaks volumes to military injustice in how it treats, or rather, mistreats its soldiers.
Please do not let this young soldier’s death be in vain. She took it upon herself to serve her country, with honor. Let her be honored by not letting her story fall into silence.
1. Sign the online petition to the Armed Services Committees in Congress asking them to direct the Army to reinvestigate the death of LaVena Johnson.
2. Find your Senator or Representative on the Armed Services Committees list and contact them directly about LaVena. (Thanks to the blogsite, http://www.lavenajohnson.com for his outstanding work to keep Lavena in the public’s mind.)
3. For background on Lavena Johnson, please view the KMOV-TV news report from 02.21.07.