Ask about Gabriel Union, and many will readily give details about the actress' recent engagement to Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade. Ask about Beyoncé and get the skivvy on her 2013 CD of the same name. Ask about Olivia Pope and get the most insightful predictions of upcoming Scandal episodes. Ask, however, about deceased Private First Class [Pfc.] LaVena Johnson and all too many will reply, "Who"?
If you have asked the "who" question, know that you are not alone. And if it is some consolation, also know that a number of factors contribute to your lack of knowledge. Being unaware is not completely your fault. Mainstream media is unlikely to touch the story of LaVena Johnson due to the powerful interests that might that it go quietly into the night. Black media is consumed with the goings-on of celebrities. Cultural blogs make these rather simple reports that require little serious journalism and research their focus and top priority. As a result, the broader community masters the scoop on the rich and famous as if this demonstrates being in the know on key issues of our times. And [black] politicians are likely to risk their political fortunes on the tragedy involving some 19-year old black girl. And as if the death of Pfc. Johnson is not sad enough, after answering the "who" question, one is left with another equally disturbing question. How?
Thanks to a film documentary The Silent Truth, reports on alternative media such as Democracy Now, and a recent article that appeared on The MadMan Chronicles, the story of this young lady is regaining much needed attention.
SO WHO WAS U.S. ARMY PRIVATE FIRST CLASS LAVENA JOHNSON?
Pfc. Johnson, a daughter of Missouri Dr. John Johnson and Mrs. Linda Johnson, was stationed in Balad, Iraq on July 19, 2005 - the date on which her life ended. The Army's official ruling stated that Johnson died from a self-inflicted, non-combat "intraoral" gunshot wound. According to investigators, Johnson was depressed at the time of her death and had made overtures to fellow soldiers that she was contemplating killing herself. Johnson's lifeless body was found in storage tent owned by contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root [KBR].
Parents of Pfc. Johnson indicate that their daughter was very patriotic and desired to serve her country. At the time of her death, Pfc. Johnson was looking forward to a brief return home before completing her tour. Long-term plans included attending college upon re-entering civilian life.
SUICIDE OR COVER-UP?
In April 2007, the Johnsons had the casket containing his daughter's remains exhumed at Jefferson Barracks Cemetary, followed by a new autopsy. This came nearly two years after unsuccessful attempts to obtain further details from the Army. Dr. Johnson, with a 25-year record of serving enlisted personnel, maintains that his daughter was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered. And further, that her body sustained additional trauma to conceal the attack she suffered as well as to complicate identifying who committed these crimes. Dr. Johnson raised a number of issues that are not easily explained by the Army's account. Namely:
- How does a young lady take an M-16 automatic rifle to shoot herself in the mouth?
- Why no suicide note at the scene to corroborate stories of LaVena's depression?
- Why did investigators fail to recover a bullet?
- Why were no traces of gun powder found on LaVena's hands?
- A trail of blood leading from LaVena's body and the tent.
- Forensic evidence that someone tried to set the tent on fire, leaving Pfc. Johnson's fully clothed body inside the burning tent.
- What of trauma to LaVena's body, including: multiple abrasions, a broken nose, loose teeth, and burns?
- A corrosive chemical on LaVena's genitals.
WHAT HAS BECOME OF US?
It is unconscionable that our nation has arrived at this place where a young woman commits her life to the service of our nation, ends up dead, and little attention is given. At a time when our nation has chosen a more aggressive military posture in the world, citizens are being called upon for dangerous, lengthy tours of duty. Further, this call comes without conscription (i.e., draft), thus requiring an appeal to younger citizens who might otherwise attend college or pursue a trade. Surely, the Armed Forces must appreciate the need to take every precaution to rest any concerns about the safety of military personnel stationed on domestic and foreign bases.
In May 2013, the Pentagon released a report that highlighted the serious extent of sexual assaults taking place within the ranks of the military. The report found a 35 percent increase in unwanted sexual contact since 2010 and a 6 percent rise in incidents from the previous year. During a May 7, 2013 news conference in the East Room of the White House, President Obama announced his "no tolerance" policy regarding sexual assaults in the military:
"I expect consequences. So I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this, they’ve got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period... For those who are in uniform who’ve experience sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs,” the president said. “I will support them. And we’re not going to tolerate this stuff, and there will be accountability.”Given the backdrop of a known problem and the President's zero tolerance commitment, resolving all legitimate doubts associated with the Pfc. Johnson's death would go a long way in changing the troublesome culture of sexual assault.
Even more shocking is the African American community's overwhelming support for an African American Commander-In-Chief that has not translated into White House calls for a thorough investigation into the death Pfc. LaVena Johnson. Some might argue that President Obama is the "president of all, and not just blacks". However, when lesser misfortunes, as in a wife appealing to the President on-behalf of unemployed worker Darin Wedel, the White House responded. If the notion of "sanctity of life" still exists as a central tenet of who we are as a nation, then surely LaVena Johnson's mysterious death merits more attention from the Commander-In-Chief than the troubles of an unemployed worker whose particular solutions are beyond the scope of the White House. And if 96% and 93% of black voter support in 2008 and 2012 count for something, let it be counted in African Americans demanding justice and a President responding to this demand.
Civil rights leaders are likewise complicit in their silence. Al Sharpton was outspoken in the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley, the teenager later found to have concocted a story of being kidnapped and raped. The NAACP [rightfully] took a vocal position in the matter of murdered 17-year old Trayvon Martin, organizing marches and circulating a petition to the Department of Justice that obtained 1.5 million signatures. Jesse Jackson interceeded during the deportation of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban-American boy whose Cuban father successfully fought to regain custody of his son in his home country of Cuba. Jackson, on his own volition, negotiated the release of hostages in conflicts involving Hafez al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein. How Jackson has been so quiet on the Pfc. Johnson matter when previous involvements have taken him around-the-world to Cuba, Serbia, Lebanon, and other hot spots is a mystery. And consider the outpouring of protests led by the ACLU, Amnesty International, NAACP, and other groups as the State of Georgia deliberated the execution of Troy Davis.
Juxtaposing these direct actions is the virtual silence regarding Pfc. LaVena Johnson. Indifference to the tragedy that befell the young soldier suggests unequal concerns about justice. Indeed, one might argue that the left is more concerned about bringing pressure to President Obama than it is about justice for LaVena. And that politicization of injustice calls into question lofty overtures about fairness.
Lingering questions about the Johnson death deserve answers. The implications speak to our honoring the dignity of Pfc Johnson's life, an intercessory compassion for the Johnson family, and general concern for women in the armed forces.