Who killed Private LaVena Johnson?
By all accounts, 19-year-old LaVena Johnson was a talented young woman. An honor roll student at Hazelwood Central High School in Florissant, Missouri, Johnson played the violin, volunteered in the community, and got straight A’s in her senior year in high school.
To help her pay for college by herself, Johnson joined the Army when recruiters told her she was unlikely to go to Iraq or Afghanistan because she was a woman. Her mom did not approve of the decision.
Nevertheless, Johnson joined and after boot camp training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, she was assigned as a weapons supply manager to the 129th Corps Support Battalion and shipped to Iraq.
Ten weeks later, she died there.
The Army says she killed herself. But LaVena Johnson had a promising future and plenty of opportunities awaiting her. Her own company commander even reportedly described her as “clearly happy.”
Johnson’s mother spoke with her daughter two days before she was killed “and everything was fine,” she said. “There was no distress, no sadness. She was her bubbly self. We talked, we laughed, and we were making plans. She was telling me how she would be coming home sooner than she expected and certainly would be home for Christmas, which was her favorite time of the year.”
So what would make her want to take her own life? That’s just one of the questions that comes to mind when investigating the troubling case of Private Johnson.
It was July 19, 2005, eight days before her 20th birthday when Johnson allegedly punched herself in the face, burned her own reproductive organs, set herself on fire and then shot herself with a gun. At least that’s the Army’s version of the story.
A Knock On The Door
Johnson’s parents got the news early the same day, at 7:30 a.m. Central Time, with a knock on their front door. “I immediately jumped up, because everyone was still asleep, and I looked out the window, and I saw one soldier standing at the door,” Johnson’s mother Linda said in an interview with Democracy Now recently.
“I immediately told [my husband] John, and he jumped up. And I just had a sadness in my heart. John ran downstairs and opened the door. And I began crying, and I couldn’t make it any further than my balcony,” she said.
When Johnson’s father opened the door, the soldier pulled out a black book and asked a question: “Are you Dr. John Johnson, the father of Private LaVena Lynn Johnson?” He said yes. The soldier then looked up and noticed the mother and asked another question. “Are you Linda Johnson, the mother of Private LaVena Lynn Johnson?” She said yes too.
The soldier opened the black book and began to read that he regretfully informed them that their daughter, Private LaVena Lynn Johnson, was dead.
“I lost it,” said Mrs. Johnson. “And I began screaming, and I ran to try to get to my other children. Of course, they heard the commotion, and they began just screaming and hollering,” she said.
A Question At The Funeral Home
Things became suspicious when the military tried to explain what happened.
Writer Elizabeth Higgs says the Army’s story gets more implausible as the timeline of the incident progresses. Despite Private Johnson’s “massive self-inflicted trauma,” Higgs says the Army claims she somehow managed to drag herself into the tent of private military contractor Kellogg Brown & Root and “set the tent ablaze in a failed attempt to cover up her crimes against herself.”
Higgs doesn’t believe the Army’s story. “In reality,” she writes, “LaVena Johnson was raped, beaten, and murdered by someone on a military base in Balad, Iraq, and the Army doesn’t want you to know about it. Army officers most especially didn’t want her parents to know about it, so they concocted the suicide story, informing them that their daughter had shot herself in the head in her barracks.”
Johnson’s parents didn’t believe it either and her father, Dr. John Johnson, became suspicious when he saw his daughter’s body in the funeral home. She had a broken nose, a black eye, loose teeth, a gunshot wound and chemical burns on her genitals. If she really wanted to kill herself, how and why would she beat herself up and disfigure herself in the process?
Then there was the question of the gunshot wound. “They said my daughter shot herself in the head. She’s right-handed, and the bullet hole was on the left side of her head,” Dr. Johnson told a radio show recently. In addition, Private Johnson was only 5’1″, and her father questions how she could handle a 40 inch M-16 to kill herself in the manner the military described.
Despite the inconsistencies, the Army resisted the family’s efforts for more information about the death, until the family filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got their local member of Congress involved in helping them.
When the Army finally turned over a CD with the information, the family found “horrific photographs from the autopsy that clearly showed the extent of their daughter’s injuries,” according to Higgs. “It proved that the original black and white photos of LaVena’s body originally sent to them had been doctored. Also on the disk were damning sketches of the crime scene that gave her parents further information contradicting the Army’s statements.”
But why hasn’t the media reported this story?
Writer Linda Lowen has an explanation. “I hope you know who LaVena Johnson is,” she writes. “But I’m finding out that very few people do, as compared to Jamie Leigh Jones. There’s a couple of big differences as to why one woman’s story is virtually unknown, while the other was covered by Brian Ross and ABC News. Jamie Leigh Jones is white. She’s alive to tell her tale. LaVena Johnson is black. She’s been dead now for over three years.”
The story came to life again late last month when a congressional committee held hearings on sexual assault in the military. But the hearings themselves were “laughable,” according to Lowen, because the Department of Defense refused to let the woman in charge of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office testify.
So what really happened to Private LaVena Johnson? That’s what the online activist group Color of Change wants to know, and they’ve pushed the case through a petition drive. They hope to get Congress to hold hearings on the case.
In the meantime, the military is sticking to its story. Private LaVena Johnson is buried at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery in Missouri and Johnson’s father wants to have her body exhumed to have an independent autopsy performed.
Private Johnson was the first woman soldier from the state of Missouri to die in Iraq or Afghanistan.
How Much More Of This Are You Going Take?
How much longer will you be silent?