No Justice, No Peace: Remembering Pfc. LaVena Johnson

Army investigators ruled that LaVena committed suicide by firing her M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth. Her body was found beside the rifle in a contractor's storage tent on a U.S. military base, a trail of blood leading away from her tent, and a gunshot wound that seemed inconsistent with suicide.


Caution: Graphic autopsy photographs.“The Silent Truth” tells the story of nineteen year-old U.S. Army Private LaVena Johnson, who was found dead on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq in July, 2005. The United States Army ruled her death as a suicide resulting from a self-inflicted M-16 rifle shot wound.

Pfc. LaVena Johnson would have turned 28 years old on July 27th. But, she died in Iraq just days before her 20th birthday on July 19th, 2005. She had only been there for eight weeks.

Army investigators ruled that LaVena committed suicide by firing her M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth. Her body was found beside the rifle in a contractor's storage tent on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005.

The Army’s account of what happened to LaVena was riddled with contradictions, from the alleged self-inflicted wound to where the body was found. Every piece of information uncovered was a painful and laborious act because of the Army’s refusal to cooperate.

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's father 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.

The autopsy report and photographs revealed Johnson had a broken nose, black eye, loose teeth, burns from a corrosive chemical on her genitals, a trail of blood leading away from her tent, and a gunshot wound that seemed inconsistent with suicide. Several reporters have suspected that the chemical burns were to destroy DNA evidence of a rape.

I believe that someday the truth about LaVena’s death will come out. If not from the military, then from someone who saw something, and finally decides to do the right thing by speaking up. But this is not just LaVena's family’s burden. As taxpayers, our dollars support the military whether we like it or not. We, too, have a duty to hold our government and its military accountable for what it does to human beings, whether they are U.S. citizens or the citizens of other countries.

Military leaders have promised in recent months that they are taking sexual assault seriously and doing everything they can to combat it. But haven't they been saying the same thing for two decades?

Wouldn't the best way to start taking sexual assault seriously be to finally bring justice to LaVena Johnson and her family and bring the truth about her death to light? I can't think of a more powerful act to signal real change taking place for women in combat than ending this unspoken code of silence.

Tell President Obama to bring justice to LaVena Johnson, and peace to her family. Please sign the petition here.

About Diane Sweet

Diane Sweet's picture
Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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