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2008-07-23

Suicide or Murder? Three Years After the Death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq, Her Parents Continue Their Call for a Congressional Investigation

Guests

Dr. John Johnson, father of Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who was killed in Iraq on July 19, 2005.

Linda Johnson, mother of Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who was killed in Iraq on July 19, 2005.

Ann Wright, spent twenty-six years in the US Army/Army Reserves and was a diplomat in the State Department for sixteen years before resigning in March 2003, protesting the then-impending invasion of Iraq.

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Three years ago, on July 19, 2005, Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson was found dead in Balad, Iraq. Her body was found in a tent belonging to the private military contractor KBR. She had abrasions all over her body, a broken nose, a black eye, burned hands, loose teeth, acid burns on her genitals, and a bullet hole in her head. The Army labeled Johnson’s death a suicide. But her parents never believed that story. They think she was raped and murdered and are now demanding a full congressional investigation into their daughter’s death. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson would have turned twenty-three this month, but three years ago the African American teenager from Missouri was found dead in Balad, Iraq, just a few weeks short of her twentieth birthday.

Her body was found in a tent belonging to the private military contractor Kellogg Brown & Root. She had abrasions all over her body, a broken nose, a black eye, burned hands, loose teeth, acid burns on her genitals, a bullet hole in her head. The Army labeled LaVena Johnson’s death a suicide. They told her parents she died of "self-inflicted, non-combat injuries."

But her parents never believed that story. They think she was raped and murdered and that the Army’s investigators ignored physical evidence that would have proved this. The Johnsons are now demanding a full congressional investigation into their daughter’s death.

We invited the military to come on the show; they declined. The Criminal Investigation Command told us that "facts are facts." They stand by their investigation that concluded LaVena Johnson’s death a suicide.

I’m joined now from St. Louis, Missouri by Dr. John Johnson and Linda Johnson, the parents of slain Iraq veteran Private LaVena Johnson. They claim that she was killed. Again, the military says it was a suicide.

We’re also joined by a former Army Reserve colonel, Ann Wright. She served in the US Army for twenty-nine years, was also a US diplomat for sixteen. She resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war in Iraq. Ann Wright joins us on the phone from Dallas.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to start with Linda Johnson. Can you tell us about why your daughter went into the military and how you learned that she had been killed?

LINDA JOHNSON: Why she went in? Because my daughter LaVena was a very patriotic person. She loved this country. And she thought she was doing something good. She thought she was doing something right.

She first had discussed this with her dad. I was not in agreement with this at all, because she was — I just thought she was just going straight on to college. She was an honor roll student. She was a very good student and the most beautiful daughter that any mother would want to have. So, like I said, she had discussed this with her dad first, and finally they told me.

AMY GOODMAN: In July of 2005, your daughter LaVena became the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq. How did you learn of her death, Linda Johnson?

LINDA JOHNSON: At 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, July 19th, there was a knock at my front door. I immediately jumped up, because everyone was still asleep, and I looked out the window, and I saw one soldier standing at the door. And I immediately told John, and he jumped up. And I just had a sadness in my heart. John ran downstairs and opened the door. And I began crying, and I couldn’t make it any further than my balcony.

John opened the door, and the soldier took out a little black book, and he asked the question, “Are you Dr. John Johnson, the father of Private LaVena Lynn Johnson?” And he said, “Yes, I am.” And then he looked up, and he saw me, and I’m sure he heard me. And he asked, “Are you Linda Johnson, the mother of Private LaVena Lynn Johnson?” And I said, “Yes, I am. What do you want?” And he opened the little black book, and he began to read and said he regretfully informed us that our daughter, Private LaVena Lynn Johnson, was dead. And I lost it. And I began screaming, and I ran to try to get to my other children. Of course, they heard the commotion, and they began just screaming and hollering.

And then, we were just in shock, disbelief, because I had just spoke with my daughter on Sunday, July 17th, and everything was fine. There was no distress, no sadness. She was her bubbly self. We talked, we laughed, and we were making plans. She was telling me how she would be coming home sooner than she expected and certainly would be home for Christmas, which was her favorite time of the year.

I got chance to finally make it to my two older sons, and I just collapsed in their arms, because I just — I just could not believe it. And my heart broke. And that was the worst day of my life. And we’ve been battling with some lying demons ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. John Johnson, when did you learn how your daughter died?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Let me make one thing clear. LaVena was a private when she died. They post-mortemly promoted her after she was dead. But the first implication that we got in terms of a mode of death was told to us by the casualty liaison from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He told me that LaVena was found dead in her barracks with a gunshot wound to the head.

I know a lot of people, and I know people who knew people over there. So we had a friend of ours that was a police officer, so he immediately emailed a friend of his that was there and asked where she was found. And that friend emailed him back and said that LaVena was found dead in a contractor’s tent. My friend was so distraught over it, he was on his way over to our house and he had a heart attack. He didn’t die, but it was severe. Then, the next day, I had a relative that brought me a message, and that message, in essence, said that LaVena knew some people who were near DFAS 2 [phon.], and that’s where her body was found: in a contractor’s tent.

So, it wasn’t until — so I was told it was a gunshot wound to the head, and the casualty liaison told me that. And when her body got here, I looked her body over, and I saw a hole on the left side of her head near the temporal lobe. And so, I went to the news media the next day, and I said, “They said my daughter shot herself in the head. She’s right-handed, and the bullet hole was on the left side of her head.” On the 10th of August, the pathologist from Dover Air Force Base called me, and he said what I saw was an exit wound. And we got into a debate over what that was an exit wound from, and he finally said it was from an M-16 rifle. And I thought that was ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Because I’m a veteran, and I’m very familiar with that M-16 rifle and its capacity. And first of all, my daughter was 5’1”, and that weapon is forty inches long. And let’s say, if she did manage to get it into her mouth, then the recoil from that weapon would have blown her face off. Let’s say, if she was tall enough and she got it in her mouth pretty well, when that bullet pops out of that barrel, it starts tumbling all over the place. So when it exits, it exits in a straight line, and it tears a huge hole in one’s head. This bullet hit at the temporal lobe, bounced and ended up going two-and-a-quarter inch toward the temporal lobe and popped out. And that is a hand revolver and not an M-16 rifle.

AMY GOODMAN: What other signs did you see or marks did you see on your daughter’s body?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: I could tell that her nose had been broken, because plastic surgery had been done. Even though she had makeup on, I could see an abrasion up under her eye. I could see that her lips had been busted, because right on the edges, right near the edges of both lips, I could see what looked like a cut. And her gloves were glued on her hands, and I thought that was peculiar. So I was pretty confident she had been beaten.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for an investigation?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Who have you spoken to?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: We spoke with Ike Skelton on the 9th of April. We left some information there. They went through that package, and apparently, I was told that they were impressed with the information that we had. Then, I understand, a subcommittee went to the Army. And of course, I don’t know why they expect the Army to say, “Yeah, we lied.” The Army said, “Yeah, everything went just fine. Criminal investigators did their job. Pathologists did their job. Everything was just fine.”

And I couldn’t believe that I got a letter from the subcommittee saying that they felt that the Army’s decision was correct, that it was a suicide. When we were back in Washington this past week, we got a chance to speak with Congresswoman Diane Watson. We talked, and we got some positive feedback from her.

AMY GOODMAN: What makes you think your daughter was raped?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: The Army originally sent us black-and-white Xerox copies of everything, and they were airbrushed. So they tampered with those pictures. So, we already went through and could figure out everything that had happened, and we assumed that she had been raped, because there was a distorted picture of her vaginal area that was in those pictures.

But it wasn’t until we got the colored CD that we could really look at that vaginal area, and it was torn —- there were tears in the lip, just a numerous amount of tears. In addition to that, it had a substance running out of it, and it looked as if that substance may have been lye. So we assume they poured that in her to destroy DNA evidence. And there’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Lye, the acid?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Yeah, it looked like it, because it was lumpy, and we don’t know if the lumps that we saw was the skin that had been burned or loose, or we don’t know if it was because it sat around, whatever the case may be. But it was a horrible sight, and it was — you know, and you wouldn’t do that if there weren’t a rape involved.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Ann Wright into this conversation now. Colonel Ann Wright served in the military for many years. You’re involved in this case, along with a number of others. Ann Wright, you set up the meeting for the Johnsons to meet with Congress members. Can you talk about what you have found?

ANN WRIGHT: Yes, indeed, Amy. We did set up a meeting actually with the Army to come into Congressman Clay’s office to personally tell the Johnson family what they had found. They had never had a face-to-face meeting with the Army before. The Army refused to allow me to go in with the family, even though the family had requested that I do that.

We have found, through investigations of other deaths — you know, there have been ninety-eight women, military women, who have died in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain. Forty of them have died of non-combat incidents, as the military terms it. Nineteen of those forty are under suspicious circumstances. Thirteen of them have now been termed suicides by the military.

We know the military has misinformed many military families, to include the Tillman family; Karen Meredith, whose son Ken was killed by Iraqi trainees; Kamisha Block, who was shot in her barracks and the family told she was killed by friendly fire, one shot — it turned out she was killed by five shots, and her killer, which was one member of her unit, committed suicide right in her barracks, and yet the family was not told this for over eight months. So there’s a lot of misinformation that’s going on with the families.

And I firmly believe that the — if we can get the Congress to hold hearings and require people to come forward under oath, that indeed we can get to the bottom of what happened to LaVena Johnson.

AMY GOODMAN: You weren’t able to go into the meeting?

ANN WRIGHT: That’s correct. I was there. I was the one that actually called the Army to say that the family, the Johnson family, would be in Washington and they had requested a meeting. And then, when we all got to Congressman Clay’s office, the Army said that I could not go in, saying I was not a member of the family. But when the family is right there saying, “Yes, we want Colonel Wright, a twenty-nine-year veteran, to be with us to help us ask questions,” the Army said, “We will not do the briefing if she is in the room.” And rather than cause a stink, which I’m perfectly capable of doing, to accede to the wishes of the family at least to get that briefing face to face, I did not go in, was not allowed in.

AMY GOODMAN: What, Dr. Johnson, was Ann Wright’s presence important to you? Why do you think they didn’t want her in there?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: First of all, the only reason we’ve gotten as far as we have with this case is because of Ann Wright. And I felt that since we were talking military entourage, I felt it would be appropriate for them to have her in there. When they said no, I knew for a fact that they didn’t want her in there, because they thought she might ask the kind of questions that could be embarrassing, and they felt her being military, she would be more knowledgeable than me. And so, I think that’s why they did not want her in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Ann Wright, you’ve also been looking — working with other parents, like Helen and Eric Burmeister, the parents of Private First Class James Burmeister, who was just court-martialed. Can you tell us about his case?

ANN WRIGHT: Absolutely. James was a — or is an Iraq veteran. He served in Iraq. He was a part of a group that actually did what’s called “bait and kill,” that they indeed put weapons or other objects in areas to attract Iraqi civilians, and then when they came into this area, they were killed. James was involved in three IED explosions in Iraq. And when he returned to his unit in Germany and then was faced with a further deployment to Iraq, he said he couldn’t do it, so he flew to Canada and lived there for ten months, then turned himself back in to military, US military, voluntarily returned himself in May.

And he is suffering from TBI, traumatic brain injury. He’s suffering from severe PTSD. He was not given treatment for that while he was at Fort Knox awaiting disposition of his case, of having been AWOL for ten months. On July 16th, the Army court-martialed him for AWOL and gave him nine months in prison and a bad conduct discharge. We’re certainly hoping that he will get some medical treatment while he’s in prison.

I think the reason that he was actually court-martialed, rather than given an administrative discharge, which many men and women who go AWOL — there’s something like forty to fifty of them that are out-processed out of Fort Knox every month — that — because he went public with what he saw, a very embarrassing and criminal action of members of our military who were using this bait and kill technique in Iraq. So I think the Army took its pound of flesh by saying, “We are going to court-martial that guy, because he spoke out.”

AMY GOODMAN: Salon.com notes that Mary Tillman, Pat Tillman’s mother, the famous football star who died in Afghanistan — the military had lied to his family for years about what happened to him, that died in so-called friendly fire, though they didn’t say that originally — she said to the New York Times in 2006, “This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual. How are they treating others?” Dr. John Johnson, since you’ve gone public with your daughter LaVena’s story, other parents have contacted you?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Yes. In fact, since we’ve gone public, there have been a number of cases that actually were exposed from other people who had suffered similar circumstances. In Missouri, St. Louis, for an example, when our story aired on KMOV, we had a number of people to call that station, and one lady came in, and she actually said, “If your company commander orders you to be in his quarters at 10:00 with your clothes off, what would you do?” So we had that to kind of come open.

And then, in addition to that, Ann — Colonel Wright has put us in contact with several other cases where these circumstances are very, very, very familiar to what happened to us, and we’ve talked with these people. For an example, Tina Priest was a case that I had read on the internet, and it was terribly disturbing to me, because it sounded so similar to my own daughter’s case. Well, as it turned out, Ann put me in contact with Joy Priest, and we’ve talked on the phone a number of times. I’ve also talked with Colonel — Major Gloria Davis’s mother, Ann Washington, and she is really upset at how they’ve treated her daughter, because her daughter was a major with eighteen years in and was looking forward to getting out in two more years. Sara Rich has really become a very good friend of ours, and her daughter, Suzanne Swift, was raped, and then when she complained about it, she got locked up. And so, these are the people that we are in contact with now, and we’re supporting one another at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the CD of the photographs of your daughter’s body. How did you get that CD?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Yeah, I — someone actually had a heart and put a picture of a CD-ROM in the black-and-white documents that we got. I wrote the Army, and I said, “Hey, how come I didn’t get a copy of this CD-ROM?” They wrote me back, and they said I wasn’t entitled to it. I wrote them back, and I said, “No, you’re wrong, because I’m next of kin. My daughter is dead, and I’m entitled to anything that’s pertaining to her murder.” Then they wrote me back, and they said, “There are names on that CD, and we have to protect those people’s privacy.” Again, I wrote them back, and I said, “No, if they are principal parties in my daughter’s death, I’m entitled to their names.”

The Army, at that point, told me not to contact them anymore, to contact their legal department. So I went to Congressman Clay’s office, and I filled out a Freedom of Information Act to get that CD. And, of course, when they had the Jessica Lynch-Pat Tillman hearings, he announced at that time that he wanted us to get that CD. And so, the Army apprehensively complied. And when we got it, we were shocked.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to talk with any other members of the military who served with your daughter to attest to her state of mind? I mean, Linda Johnson just told us about talking to her daughter on the phone. What about people in Iraq?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: I thought this was ironic. As I sat there on Thursday and listened to the criminal investigator read the charges in this case, he referenced three people. And as he talked, I recognized who those three people were. The male that he claimed was LaVena’s boyfriend had actually been contacted by a news media person from a major network. And that person not only told them that he wasn’t LaVena’s boyfriend, that they were friends — LaVena told him she was taught not to have sex until she was married — and that young man also told the news person that LaVena was murdered, the person who did it had been admonished, but the Army is covering for him.

The other two ladies that he referred to, both of them had called me. One of them had talked to me and said that LaVena was fine, that she — well, they said they thought she was seeing somebody. That’s what they said, sneaking off seeing somebody. And so, when I asked them, I said, “What makes you think that?” they said, “Well, LaVena disappeared a couple of times.” Well, that message that I got from Iraq told me that LaVena knew people on that post other than those two females. So I said, “Well, did you know they say LaVena committed suicide?” And she said, “No way.”

Now, the other — the second woman called me the next day, and apparently the first one had talked to her. And so, this woman said, “I think they misunderstood us, Dr. Johnson.” So we talked a bit. And so, she said, “Did you get LaVena’s money.” And I said, “I think that’s a private matter.” And she said, “No. LaVena had a lot of money on her.” And I said I didn’t get that; I got three pennies. She said LaVena had a lot of money on her, and somebody took her money. So while we were in that meeting on Thursday, I said to the criminal investigator, “She had money on her, and either the people who murdered her took it or CID took it.” When I made that allegation, I got absolutely no response from them.

AMY GOODMAN: Linda Johnson, what is it that you would like people to do? How would it help you to find out what actually happened to your daughter?

LINDA JOHNSON: We just need the people who are responsible — well, we know that the people we’re dealing with, they lie as easy as they breathe. So that’s why we need the congressional hearing, so that people can be under oath and tell the truth. We want justice for our daughter, because I believe with all my heart my daughter was murdered. I cannot look at the pictures. I don’t have to look at the pictures. I’ve heard enough from my husband. And it took him a while to even let me know the things that had been done to my precious daughter. And to know that my daughter was set on fire and somebody tried to burn her body, that was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: And the other thing, you know, we deserve closure. This is ridiculous for us to lose a nineteen-year-old daughter that loved this country and then to have people not only to lie how she died, but to desecrate her character to make up — to justify a suicide. That is insulting. That is demeaning. And in addition to that, my family is under a tremendous emotional stress because of this. Fortunately, for me, it’s anger. But the rest of my family, they’re hurt desperately. And these people act like they don’t care. And that bothers me.

LINDA JOHNSON: They don’t care. They put on a uniform, and they say “honor and integrity.” They have no morals, no honor and no integrity. And I don’t know how they even sleep at night.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the website LaVenaJohnson.com, and it says ColorofChange.org is launching a LaVena petition, a petition addressing the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its chair, Representative Henry Waxman, to launch an investigation right now. Are you supporting that?

DR. JOHN JOHNSON: Yes. And one of the reasons why we really appreciated that effort is because they did a final report on the Jessica Lynch-Pat Tillman hearing and the admonishment of the Army for the way they came and was deceptive to Congress. Mentioned in that report was, in lieu of the fact that Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were famous people, there are some other people out there that are not famous that the Army had done the same thing to. And my daughter and I — and our family, rather, we were mentioned in that report. And so, we appreciated that effort.

When we were there, we had a brochure that we had made up, and the brochure is advocating that we get some congressional support. I gave a handful of those to members of Congress. They passed it out. And Representative Waxman even adapted that brochure as part of the minutes for that day. And so, I stood up and thanked him for that effort. So, yeah, we support that effort 100 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Linda Johnson, Dr. John Johnson, the parents of LaVena Johnson. She was nineteen years old. She was the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq. We will continue to follow this story, and you can go to our website, and we’ll link to stories about LaVena, and we will also have the video and the audio, podcast, as well as transcript, at democracynow.org. Her parents, speaking to us from their home in St. Louis, Missouri.

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