The suspicious death of LaVena Johnson remains listed as a suicide, despite the fact that all the evidence points to murder.
On the evening of July 18, 2005, an excited LaVena Johnson told her parents that she would be home from Iraq for Christmas.
LaVena was fresh out of high school when she decided to join the military despite her parents’ objections. Thinking of the financial strains her parents would face putting both her and her sister through college at the same time, LaVena postponed college and joined the military.
The St. Louis, Missouri native never made it to college.
LaVena never made it home for Christmas, either.
In fact, LaVena never made it home alive.
LaVena Johnson’s parents picked their precious daughter up from the airport–in a casket, draped with an American flag.
In May of 2005, just one year after graduating high school, 19 year old LaVena was deployed with the 129 Corp Support Battalion to Balad, Iraq.
Eight weeks after arriving in Iraq and eight days shy of her 20th birthday, LaVena Johnson died under suspicious circumstances.
LaVena became the first woman soldier to die while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military told her parents, Dr. John and Linda Johnson, that LaVena died from a self inflicted gunshot wound. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Dr. Johnson, a military vet himself, immediately became suspicious, as was his wife, whose immediate response was “No, not my baby. She wouldn’t do this to herself.”
The more Dr. Johnson was told about his daughter’s death, the more Dr. Johnson felt that LaVena’s “suicide” wasn’t a suicide at all. He and his wife became convinced that their beautiful little girl was murdered.
Dr. Johnson was told that LaVena shot herself in the mouth with her military issued service weapon. LaVena’s service weapon was a 40 inch M-16. His daughter, only 5’1″ and less than 100 lbs, would have had great difficulty maneuvering an M-16 into her mouth and then firing.
The Johnson family was told that LaVena was upset because her brand new boyfriend of two months had broken up with her via email. The military alleges that LaVena printed the emails out, stuffed them in her pocket, slung her M-16 service weapon over her shoulder, and went to buy M&Ms and a six pack of soda at a military store with an unnamed male friend. The military claims the two returned to the barracks, but then LaVena left again, alone this time. She made her way to a tent belonging to Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), a military contractor. Once LaVena was in the KBR tent, the military says she found a can of aerosol and lit the break up emails on fire–and then the entire tent. According to the military, the distraught LaVena, only 61″ tall herself, then put the 40″ M-16 into her mouth and fired. The Army’s investigative branches concluded their investigation–LaVena Johnson killed herself. Soon after, the Armed Services Committee in the Senate signed off on LaVena’s death. The case was closed.
However, once the Johnson’s received LaVena’s body, the suspicions of a grieving mother and father no longer seemed like suspicions, but certainties. They were certain their daughter had been murdered in Iraq.
LaVena’s body would tell the story that LaVena herself could no longer tell.
The US Military’s autopsy showed that LaVena sustained a busted lip, broken teeth, scratch marks on her neck, but no serious injuries.
Dr. Johnson himself noticed his daughter’s face was bruised. He later found that plastic surgery had been performed on LaVena’s face to conceal a broken nose.
He noticed that the bullet wound in his daughter’s head looked too small to be from an M-16, and that it was on the left side. LaVena was right handed. The military’s response was that it was an exit wound from an M-16. Yet two ballistics experts, Donald Marion and Cyril Wecht, state that LaVena’s alleged M-16 exit wound is more consistent with a bullet wound from a 9 MM pistol.
The bullet that killed LaVena was never found and the military’s own residue tests indicate that she may not have even handled the weapon that supposedly killed her.
Even more troubling, her white dress gloves had been glued to her hands, concealing third degree burns.
Dr. Johnson was deeply disturbed and troubled by the discrepancies in what the Army’s investigation found versus what he himself was seeing.
Over the next few years, through the Freedom of Information Act, the Johnsons slowly began to obtain information about what had really happened to LaVena.
The photos showed that his daughter had bruises and scratches on the upper part of her torso; there were even teeth marks. She appeared to have been badly beaten. Something that Dr. Johnson believed to be lye or another caustic substance had been poured on her vaginal area, most likely to eliminate any DNA evidence from rape. There was a trail of blood leading outside of the tent, suggesting that LaVena had been dragged into the tent after the attack, and then the tent was set on fire.
Dr. Johnson and his family tried to recruit the help of the mainstream media; CBS paid for a second autopsy. The second autopsy found that LaVena’s neck was broken. Parts of her vagina, tongue, and anus had been removed.
The military’s autopsy notes none of this; nor were the Johnsons informed parts of their daughter’s body had been removed.
Despite spending thousands of dollars on autopsies, experts, and coming to the Johnsons’ home, CBS didn’t run the story. Neither did ABC, who also invested a good deal of money into the story. Reports allege that one popular magazine was even threatened that running the story would result in the military no longer buying ad space from them.
LaVena’s parents continue to fight for the Army to reopen the investigation regarding their daughter’s death. They’ve met with Congress reps, who have called meetings with reps from the Army’s investigations unit. When confronted with the case’s contradictions, the Army reps were unable to provide any answers. They continued to insist that LaVena killed herself.
Jessica Williams, a Johnson family appointed ambassador for LaVena says the following:
The military has monopolized so much government opinion of this case. We have had separate independent investigations that have proved beyond reasonable doubt that LaVena did not commit suicide. However, the official response from the Military still remains “Case closed.” It doesn’t matter who tries to help: Congress persons, government and legal officials are all met with the same reply. It’s unfortunate but not a losing battle..we just have to keep pushing and wear them down. We can’t give up.
Williams has also created a Change.org petition asking the Army to reopen the investigation into LeVena’s death.
LaVena’s story isn’t the only tragic tale of military sexual trauma and murder. Activist and retired Army Colonel Ann Wright says that there are 20 plus non-combat deaths of female soldiers under scrutiny; nearly all have occurred on base in Afghanistan or Iraq. Of these 20, the military reports 14 as being suicides.
You can sign the Change.org petition asking the Army to reopen the investigation here: http://www.change.org/petitions/it-s-time-to-act-now-claim-justice-for-pfc-lavena-johnson
April Dawn (@scarlettsinatra)