LaVena Johnson

The Death of LaVena Johnson

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On June 6th, a panel discussion was held in St. Louis to discuss the death of LaVena Johnson.  She was the first Missouri woman killed in Iraq, just eight days shy of her 20th birthday.  Today, three years after her death, questions still surround the circumstances of this tragedy.  Her father, Dr. John Johnson, and other family members, have dedicated countless hours researching and traveling the country looking for an answer.

LaVena JohnsonWho was LaVena Johnson?  She was a St. Louis native, a young black woman, an honor roll student, and violinist.  As her father explains, he had saved up the money for her to go to school, but she instead joined the Army out of high school to lighten the load on her family.  Her recruiter told her she would not be going to Iraq.  She was subsequently deployed with the 129th Corps Support Battalion and, like over 4,000 other Americans so far, died in Iraq.

Cover-ups and fabrication of the facts as in the cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch have become widely known, but LaVena’s case exposes a shocking trend.  This is the widespread occurrence of rape in the armed forces and the U.S. government’s attempt to prevent these cases from seeing the light of day. When one looks at the sheer number of cases, it could easily be described as epidemic in proportion.

A nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the VA found that nearly one-third had been the victims of rape or attempted rape during their service.  Of that number, 37 percent said that this had happened to them multiple times, and 14 percent said that they were victims of gang rape.  While the Department of Defense won’t release the corresponding figures for sexual assaults by men on other men, according to a press release from Veterans for Peace, “anecdotal evidence indicates that the statistics are alarmingly high” for this as well.

An alarming number of service women are turning up dead.  The Army has been categorizing these deaths as being due to “noncombat injuries,” and in many cases as “suicide” or “self-inflicted, noncombat injuries.”  The facts of LaVena’s case, in particular, are difficult to reconcile with this conclusion.  Why was half of her body burned underneath the clothes she was found in?  Why was the back of her clothes covered in debris?  Why have residue tests shown no evidence that she even handled the weapon that killed her?  These are just a few of the questions that deserve answers.

LaVena Johnson HeadstoneMost alarming of all, the investigation photos, which LaVena’s father had to struggle to obtain, show that a corrosive liquid had been poured on her genital area.  This was likely to destroy DNA evidence of an assault.  With all of this evidence, the U.S. Army has the nerve to say that LaVena’s death was a suicide!

There is more evidence that we can list, such as her broken nose or the blood trail leading from the burning tent that she was found in. But while her case is tragic, she is not alone.  She is just one of many female soldiers with similar cases, such as Caira Durkin in Afghanistan, who before she was killed warned relatives to investigate if anything happened to her.

Camp Taji in Iraq alone has become a hotbed of suspicious deaths of female soldiers due to “noncombat injuries.”  Hannah Gunterman McKinney was initially said to have been hit by a vehicle while crossing the street.  It is now clear, however, that she either fell or was pushed from a vehicle being driven by her drunken commanding officer, who had sexually assaulted her.  The Sergeant was only charged with drunken driving and “consensual sodomy with an underage, incapacitated junior soldier.”  He was not discharged.

Tina Priest was said to have “committed suicide” 11 days after she was raped.  In this case, due to her short stature, the army has been forced to argue that she fired the M-16 that killed her with her toe.  In addition to these two cases, a number of other suspicious deaths at Camp Taji require further investigation:  Melissa J. Hobart, Jeanette Dunn, Kamish J. Block, Marisol Heredia, and Keisha Morgan.  All cases of “self-inflicted, noncombat injuries” require immediate investigation.

Of course, actual suicide rates are exceptionally high for combat veterans, due largely to PTSD suffered after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Numbers are difficult to come by as the VA is notorious for underreporting indicators of troop demoralization.  However, of the 69 male suicides reported since 2002, 64 have actually occurred in the United States, after the soldier has returned from duty, while only 2 committed suicide in Iraq.   While the sample size for women suicides is very small, a far greater proportion have taken their lives while on active duty in Iraq, which raises some important questions.  Why are women more likely to commit “suicide” in Iraq, rather than after they return to the U.S. like their male counterparts?  How many of these “suicides” are actually suicides?

Many of these cases involve sexual misconduct by a superior officer against a female subordinate.  This is an example of abuse of power operating on multiple levels, i.e. not only male dominance, but the hierarchal system of the bourgeois military, which is quite often a direct reflection of the different class backgrounds of officers and soldiers.

The war in Iraq is causing far more casualties than the official figures indicate. The case of LaVena Johnson is yet another tragic example of why we demand the troops be brought home now! For more information, please visit To sign the petiton visit: The Pfc. LaVena Johnson Petition

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