SBS Dateline on LaVena Johnson

May 20, 2009 by Philip Barron · 2 Comments 

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This week, the Australian network SBS brings its focus to the death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson and the issue of sexual assault in the US military in a Dateline story by journalist Ginny Stein. The feature, “Dark Secrets,” is scheduled to air on May 29, but the video is available now to watch online.

From the Dateline website:

[Sexual assault] is a pervasive problem, with Veterans Affairs statistics showing nearly one in three female soldiers are sexually harassed while serving their country, and for some the consequences are devastating.

Private LaVena Lyn Johnson was just five weeks into her tour of Iraq when she was found dead in a contractor’s tent. The US Army concluded the 19-year-old committed suicide after firing her M16 rifle into her mouth.

However, her father, who worked in the military as a civilian specialist in psychology, refuses to believe his daughter committed suicide.

For the past three years, Dr John Johnson has studied almost every aspect of his daughter’s death. He now believes LaVena was raped and murdered by someone in her camp, and accuses the army of covering up a soldier on soldier slaying.

Dr Johnson says he will keep fighting for justice until the army changes “their attitude about how they treat women in the military”.

Stein is an award-winning journalist who previously spent four years in Southeast Asia reporting for the ABC. Her stories for SBS have taken her from Indonesia to Zimbabwe, from Rwanda to the United States.

LA Times profiles LaVena’s story

March 9, 2009 by Philip Barron · 10 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.

Black Talk Radio interviews LaVena’s father

January 18, 2009 by Philip Barron · 4 Comments 

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LaVena’s father, Dr. John Johnson, will be interviewed by Scotty Reid of the Internet-based Black Talk Radio Network on Monday, January 19, at 8pm Eastern:

PFC LaVena Johnson lost her life in Iraq on July 19, 2005. Although the U.S. Army has ruled her death a suicide, the evidence would suggest that this was not the case. The family of PFC LaVena Johnson has worked tirelessly to have the case re-opened and properly investigated.

LaVena’s father, Dr. John H. Johnson will join Black Talk Radio on Jan 19, 2009 at 8pm ET, 7pm CT and 6pm PT. He will update us on the efforts to reveal the the truth about how his daughter was brutally raped, assaulted and murdered and have the case re-opened.

Note: Listeners are invited to call in with questions and comments; the call-in number is (347) 826-9112.

The program can be accessed at the appropriate time via the audio player below, which can be easily embedded on your own website and shared in formats such as Facebook.

Interviewer Scotty Reid is the president of the Black Talk Media Project, a non-profit education and media company incorporated in North Carolina. Reid is a father, veteran and has hosted an Internet radio show for almost two years. The project’s mission is the promotion of media relevant to the Black community, and value-based programming that is ethical and family-friendly. The Black Talk Radio Network was created in July of 2008 and has steadily grown since its conception; the Black Talk Media Project was incorporated in December of 2008.

A day for veterans

November 11, 2008 by Philip Barron · 3 Comments 

Thinking about soldiers makes my heart hurt, a little.

For the past three years, anything and everything having to do with the American military – especially the US Army – has been influenced by my understanding of the events surrounding the death in Iraq of Pfc. LaVena Johnson of Florissant, Missouri. The ruling of suicide as the cause of her death, as determined by military investigators; the anguish and anger of her father and mother as their pleas to renew the investigation of the case have met with stony silence and resistance from authorities. Interest from legislators ebbs and flows – mostly ebbs – and progress has come slowly indeed. Three years is a long time in which to see little change, and so LaVena’s fate has come to color everything – for me – when it comes to military service.

There is more involved, however.

My father served in the Air Force for twenty years. His duty carried him to far countries, and we – my mother, my brother, and myself – saw little of him for long periods of time. We finally came together as a family for the last two years of his stint, when we moved from South Carolina to live together at Whiteman Air Force Base, then home of the Minuteman missile. Dad ended his service as a technical sergeant. After that, we moved back to South Carolina.

My father died of cancer a few years afterwards.

I never felt that I knew him – he had been gone so often, and for so long – and I think it is fair to say that he did not know me. Military service came to mean absence. It was just a consequence of wearing the uniform. I was always proud of my father’s uniform. Never knew the man, not really, but I was proud that he had served.

The tension between absence and pride is not meant to be reconciled, and yet everyone with a loved one in uniform must find a way to balance the two. The necessity of doing so is why we always make the distinction, whether or not we realize it or admit it, between citizens and soldiers. On a basic level, though, the distinction does not exist: the sacrifice made by the soldier in answering a call to arms is mirrored by the sacrifice made by those who have to let them go.

So when the death of a soldier goes unanswered by those in charge, it is an insult to the soldier’s sacrifice, and to ours.

This is a day for veterans, a day in which to give them the honor they deserve for having subordinated themselves to something greater than the individual. That does not obviate the injustice of the unanswered death of soldiers such as LaVena Johnson; rather, it underscores the necessity of doing justice by her, and by her family, in the name of their sacrifice.

Though I did not know my father well, I believe that he would agree.

The Fayetteville Observer on domestic violence in the military

October 17, 2008 by Philip Barron · 2 Comments 

From an article by activist and retired Army Colonel Ann Wright in Truthout:

The October 14, 2008 editorial in the Fayetteville, NC Observer “Our View: Military Domestic Violence Needs More Aggressive Prevention,” focused on the murder of four military women in North Carolina and contained a startling comment: “In a way, it’s surprising that there aren’t more bodies piling up at military bases all over this nation.” The Observer is the newspaper that serves Fort Bragg, one of the military’s largest bases.

The editorial was in response to the vigil held on October 8 at the gates of Fort Bragg to commemorate the murder of four US military women in North Carolina in the past nine months, and to call for action to prevent more murders by members of the US military.

In a nine-month period from December 2007 to September 2008, four US military women were killed by military men near the Army’s Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps’s Camp Lejeune, two military mega-bases in North Carolina.

Col. Wright: “The Observer editorial was remarkable in its clarity on the causes and connections of domestic and state-sponsored violence.” From the editorial:

It’s an old argument. We train men, and now women, to wage war, then we are baffled when they do that to each other. It is driven in times of war by a national culture that can extol violence, conflating it with patriotism. And don’t overlook the general population raised on a steady diet of malevolence disguised as entertainment. In a way, it’s surprising that there aren’t more bodies piling up at military bases all over this nation. We are certain, nevertheless, that the demonstrators (at the gates of Fort Bragg) were on to something that we as a community need to address. This may become an epidemic that threatens us all. It is a problem we, as a community, military and civilian, can’t ignore. It is also a problem that we have not, so far, effectively solved.

An bold editorial from a military-town newspaper, and well worth reading. Thanks to Col. Wright, and to Deborah Newell Tornello of litbrit for the heads-up on the Truthout article.

October 15, 2008 by Philip Barron · 8 Comments 


Gregg Reese, contributor to the Los Angeles-based Our Weekly, has written on the case of PFC LaVena Johnson. The article provides an informative snapshot of the background behind LaVena’s death, autopsy findings and official statements, accounts of Congressional efforts that have thus far fallen short of results, and a broader look at the issue of

Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson

September 19, 2008 by Philip Barron · 3 Comments 

Another troubling story of a “non-hostile” military death in Iraq, another military family desperate for answers from an uncommunicative Army. CNN reports on the death of Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson:

Darryl Mathis waits in his Pensacola, Florida, home for the body of his 24-year-old son to return home from Iraq. Mathis, a military veteran himself, was seething with anger Thursday as he spoke about the death of Army Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson.

Dawson, and Sgt. Wesley Durbin, 26, are said to have been shot and killed by another U.S. soldier on Sunday at a base south of Baghdad.

Darryl and his wife, Maxine (Dawson’s stepmother), say the military has told them nothing about the incident: no details on his death, no information at all.

His voice shakes as he says he believes that the military has let him down.

“I’m very disappointed — very,” he said. “If I would get a straight answer, if they would actually tell me what’s going on, I would have something to work on; but right now, I have nothing to work on. Everything I’m getting, I’m getting from the media.”

As with the case of PFC LaVena Johnson, the initial military response has been grudging, fragmented, and contradictory:

CNN phoned an Army base in Fort Stewart, Georgia, to ask for more details on the incident. CNN was then e-mailed another press release — this one written by Gen. Tony Cucolo, the commanding general of the Third Infantry Division — that a press officer said had been drafted on Wednesday.

That release also had not been e-mailed to reporters, as is customary.

“We do know one soldier, a fellow noncommissioned officer, allegedly opened fire and mortally wounded his squad leader and fellow team leader,” reads the statement.

A spokesman at Fort Stewart said, “A soldier has been taken into custody. The incident is under investigation, and that is all I can say.”

The spokesman would not even confirm information in his commanding general’s press statement.

It remains to be seen whether the front-page media attention given to Sgt. Dawson’s death by CNN will result in a more forthcoming response from Army investigators. We hope that CNN will broaden the scope of its attention to include LaVena Johnson, and other soldiers whose deaths in service remain shadowed.

September 18, 2008 by Philip Barron · Leave a Comment 

Dilemas, a new Spanish-language online publication by journalism students in Santiago, Chile, recently published a story on the LaVena Johnson matter written by its US correspondent, Fernando A. Torres. En espa

Deaths awaiting answers

September 11, 2008 by Philip Barron · 3 Comments 

The bleak refusal of Army investigators in response to the Johnsons’ call for a renewed investigation of LaVena’s death has been well-noted here and elsewhere on the Web. LaVena’s case is just one of many, however; stories of other soldiers whose deaths are shrouded in secrecy, and whose loved ones still await investigation and explanation by military authorities, are coming to light. In May of 2007, this website noted an article by Diane Farsetta, senior researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy, titled

Second Oversight hearing on military sexual assault

September 10, 2008 by Philip Barron · 2 Comments 

A second hearing on sexual assault in the military is being held today by the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, a branch of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The hearing will be held in room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building and was to begin at 10:00 am Eastern. Slated to appear before the subcommittee is Dr. Kaye Whitley, chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office of the Department of Defense. Whitley had been subpoenaed to appear for the first hearing, but had been prevented from appearing by Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michael Dominguez. The panel’s reaction to that earlier interference by Dominguez:

Full committee Chairman Henry Waxman called the DoD

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