LA Times profiles LaVena’s story

March 9, 2009 by Philip Barron · 12 Comments 

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The Los Angeles Times has published a story by David Zucchino on Lavena Johnson, her death in Iraq, and her family’s ongoing struggle to repudiate the Army’s claim that she took her own life. It

Reporting from Florissant, Mo. — Inside the tidy suburban St. Louis home of John and Linda Johnson, no photos of their eldest daughter grace the walls. Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson was just 19 when she died in Iraq in 2005; to this day her parents cannot bear to display reminders of her life.

John Johnson does possess other photos of his daughter — explicit color shots of her autopsy and death scene. He shows them to a visitor. They are horrifying: LaVena in a pool of blood. LaVena’s corpse on a coroner’s table. [...]

There was no suicide note, no recovered bullet and no significant gunshot residue on her hands. But the Army cited fellow soldiers’ reports that she was depressed and had spoken of killing herself.

Johnson maintains that his daughter was raped and killed, and that her death scene was staged to make it appear as if she shot herself. He accuses the Army of covering up for a killer or killers to conceal a soldier-on-soldier slaying, explaining that military personnel would have had unrestricted access to the area where his daughter died and therefore would not have attracted undue attention.

If LaVena’s death were investigated as a homicide, Johnson added, it would raise questions about base security and discourage women from enlisting.

The Zucchino story, written with both clarity and sensitivity, relays the pain that LaVena’s family has dealt with every day since LaVena’s death, a pain shared by other military families in similar straits:

Like the Johnsons, other families have questioned the military’s suicide findings in the deaths of their daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan. They too accuse the military of jumping to conclusions and ignoring evidence of murder.

But these grieving families have discovered that there are no clear answers and few conclusive facts, only murky evidence that can be interpreted more than one way. The result is a climate of mistrust and suspicion that leaves the military on the defensive and the families feeling deceived.

The families have had an determined advocate in retired Army Colonel Ann Wright, who has been quoted many times in this website.

Wright accuses the military of withholding evidence pointing to sexual assaults and other attacks on female service members.

She contends that the military has been too quick to close the cases of some women’s deaths as suicides without conducting thorough homicide investigations. She accuses the military of stonewalling families who question its findings.

“What the military is doing is egregious,” she said. “In many cases, they have the information the families want but refuse to release it. These families are really fighting upstream.”

Zucchino’s story is well-written, and highly recommended for anyone unfamiliar with LaVena Johnson.