Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pfc. LaVena Johnson and Another Military Cover-Up

Technorati Tags: , ,

Phillip Barron (Waveflux at Shakespeare's Sister) has a piece up at AlterNet:Blogs about Pfc. LaVena Johnson, whose death in Iraq has been getting attention in the blogosphere ever since a local tv station in St. Louis (Johnson's hometown) aired a segment spotlighting unresolved and troubling questions about the circumstances of Johnson's death:

There once was a young woman from a St. Louis suburb. She was an honor roll student, she played the violin, she donated blood and volunteered for American Heart Association walks. She elected to put off college for a while and joined the Army once out of school. At Fort Campbell, KY, she was assigned as a weapons supply manager to the 129th Corps Support Battalion.

She was LaVena Johnson, private first class, and she died near Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005, just eight days shy of her twentieth birthday. She was the first woman soldier from Missouri to die while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The tragedy of her story begins there.

An Army representative initially told LaVena's father, Dr. John Johnson, that his daughter died of "died of self-inflicted, noncombat injuries" and initially added it was not a suicide -- in other words, an accidental death caused by LaVena herself. The subsequent Army investigation reversed this finding and declared LaVena's death a suicide, a finding refuted by the soldier's family. In an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dr. Johnson pointed to indications that his daughter had endured a physical struggle before she died -- two loose front teeth, a "busted lip" that had to be reconstructed by the funeral home -- suggesting that "someone might have punched her in the mouth."

A promise by the office of Representative William Lacy Clay to look into the matter produced nothing. The military said that the matter was closed.

Little more on LaVena's death was said until St. Louis CBS affiliate KMOV aired a story on Thursday which disclosed troubling details not previously made public - details which belie the Army's assertion that the young Florissant native died by her own hand. The video of the report is available on the KMOV website.

Reporter Matt Sczesny spoke with LaVena's father and examined documents and photos sent by Army investigators. So far from supporting the claim that LaVena died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the documents provided elements of another scenario altogether:

  • Indications of physical abuse that went unremarked by the autopsy

  • The absence of psychological indicators of suicidal thoughts; indeed, testimony that LaVena was happy and healthy prior to her death

  • Indications, via residue tests, that LaVena may not even have handled the weapon that killed her

  • A blood trail outside the tent where Lavena's body was found

  • Indications that someone attenpted to set LaVena's body on fire

The Army has resisted calls by Dr. Johnson and by KMOV to reopen its investigation.

Phillip lists a number of actions that anyone (not just bloggers) can take to draw more attention to Pfc Johnson's story and persuade the military to reinvestigate and find out the truth of what happened to her. I am going to re-post that list here:

One very important and helpful act: commend the reporter and television station that brought this new information about LaVena to light: Matt Sczesny (pronounced says-nee) of KMOV-TV in St. Louis. Please contact the KMOV newsroom at news@kmov.com. It would be helpful to mention the name of Lavena Johnson in the subject header. If you'd rather contact KMOV another way, here's the info:

One Memorial Drive
St. Louis, Missouri 63102
Main Switchboard: 314-621-4444 (8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Monday - Friday)
News: 314-444-6333

Other steps you can take involve:

The media close at hand. LaVena's story is no more a local concern than the war in Iraq or the concern families have for their loved ones overseas. Share that concern in the letters column of your newspaper, or on open line discussion on that radio talk show you listen to.

The media far away. LaVena's story won't enter the minds of the professional opinion-makers unless it is brought to their attention. It could be a national-level print columnist (a Nick Kristoff, possibly), a television personality (a Keith Olbermann, perhaps), a talk show host (an Oprah Winfrey, maybe). If you feel that a particular media personality would be sympathetic to the story of Pfc. Johnson and her family, please share that story with him or her.

Those who have written or talked about LaVena before. Our attention span is narrow; we have to work to remember things, even important things. There are news outlets that have mentioned LaVena's death once and then moved on because that's the way of the world. Find out who they are (Google, Lexis Nexis, and the like). Help them remember. Remind them of LaVena.

Friends, family, plain old people. I look at the links that are bringing people to the posts on LaVena and see that several originated from emails. People are sharing the story. It takes just a moment to spread the word via your address book. Or over dinner.

Politicians. Frequent reader Bitty gave me the idea of contacting members of the Senate Armed Services (direct contact info at the bottom of that linked post). Both of Bitty's senators sit on that committee, as does one of mine (which reminds me: I haven't yet seen a response from Claire McCaskill's office). There's a corresponding committee in the House, however, and I would suggest that concerned constituents contact those members. I will post contact info for them on this blog tomorrow, time allowing.

Also: I have heard that a few politicians are running for president, and that they occasionally mention Iraq and the US troops stationed there. It would be useful to know (1) if they are can be helpful to Pfc. Johnson's family in this matter, and (2) if not, why not.

Those who have served. I saved soldiers for last here when they might easily have been first; I did so because I believe it's important to go away from this thinking primarily about the men and women who have served us in dangerous places. Our thoughts are with them and for them and their families, regardless of personal feelings about the current war. If you have a loved one or a friend who is is serving now or has served, share LaVena's story with that soldier.

No comments: