Pfc. LaVena Johnson, 19 years old, died in Iraq. While she's not alone in that, the circumstances of her death -- and what happened afterwards -- deserves the attention and action of every person in this country, regardless of political affiliation, who claims to "support the troops." Other than to ask you to sign the petition and write your congresspersons (if you're in Florida like me, a lot of Floridians sit on the Armed Services Committees), I'll turn the rest over to Phil Barron, who has been tireless in his devotion to getting this story out and who spearheaded the Johnson petition (follow the link to get the links imbedded in this story, including the TV news report):
Once upon a time lived a young woman from a St. Louis suburb. She was an honor roll student, she played the violin, she donated blood and volunteered for American Heart Association walks. She elected to put off college for a while and joined the Army once out of school. At Fort Campbell, KY, she was assigned as a weapons supply manager to the 129th Corps Support Battalion.
She was LaVena Johnson, private first class, and she 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," 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."
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 last night 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 attenpted 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.
Astonishing as it seems, it takes that level of outrage to compel the Army to find the truth and tell it, to honor its own soldiers. No such groundswell has yet emerged in the case of LaVena; not enough voices have demanded that someone in the military, anyone, speak for her. At first glance, the contrast between the cases of Pat Tillman and LaVena Johnson seems vast, but at the core the situations are the same. In each case, the death of a young soldier in a dangerous place and time was not explained to the families they left behind, the families that gave them up so that they could serve us. 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.