March 1, 2007
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.
The tragedy of her story begins there. An Army representative initially told LaVena's father, Dr. John Johnson, that his daughter died of "died of self-inflicted, noncombat injuries" and initially added it was not a suicide -- in other words, an accidental death caused by LaVena herself. 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."
A promise by the office of Representative William Lacy Clay to look into the matter produced nothing. The military said that the matter was closed. Little more on LaVena's death was said until St. Louis CBS affiliate KMOV aired a story on Thursday which disclosed troubling details not previously made public - details which belie the Army's assertion that the young Florissant native died by her own hand.
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 attempted to set LaVena's body on fire.
The Army has resisted calls by Dr. Johnson and by KMOV to reopen its investigation. We have seen in other military deaths, most infamously that of Army Ranger and former professional football player Cpl. Pat Tillman, that the Army has engaged in an insulting game of deny and delay when it comes to uncovering embarrassing facts.
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 unpleasant truths come to light. An honest accounting of their passing is all the dead ask of us.
The mother of Pat Tillman put the matter in stark and honest terms: "This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual," she said. "How are they treating others?"In the case of Private First Class Johnson, we know the answer.