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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

PFC LaVena Johnson and gender-based violence in the military

Dr. John H. Johnson, PHD of Florrisant and LaVena's father, said color photos and other Army documents under the Freedom of Information Act confirmed his worst fears.

“Our worst fears were substantiated when we started going through information from the Army."

He said the pictures and documents from the incident proved that his daughter had been brutalized - raped, beaten, shot and set on fire.

"Someone poured lye in her vagina to destroy evidence," her father said. "Her body was dumped in a dirty, filthy contractor's tent."

Listen up. The Daddy is still feeling the case of PFC LaVena Johnson, a beautiful and smart black woman from a fine family. She was a high school honor student who played the violin and participated in volunteer efforts in her community. She could have been your daughter, If she had been, you would have been very, very proud. And you would have been very proud when she told you that she wanted to join the army to serve her country. But while serving her country, she was attacked and killed, and possibly raped, by someone in her own ranks. And as if that's not bad enough, the top military brass did everything it could to hide what happened to her family. Remember: this is about more than PFC Johnson. It's about gender-based violence against women by men who are supposed to have the women's back, to guard a fellow soldier's life as they would guard their own life.

The most recent article The Daddy read was the brilliant piece by Gregg Reese in Our Weekly. To get the background and come up to speed, check out Reese's article. Check it out:

By Gregg Reese
OW Contributor

This past July marked the three year anniversary of the death of Pvt. LaVena Johnson from what has been termed “non-combat related injuries” during the ongoing Iraqi War. Since then, her family has refused to accept the Army’s official conclusion that her demise was a suicide, allegedly as a result of depression following her contracting a sexually transmitted disease from a boyfriend who has yet to be identified.

The transition of the American military into a co-ed fighting force has brought with it the growing pains expected in such a large undertaking, along the way producing such notable service humiliations as the Navy Tail-hook scandal of 1991, sexual assaults at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, and the Air Force Academy in 2003.

In each episode’s aftermath, extensive remedial programs about sexual harassment and rape hot lines have been employed to augment the changing role of women in the armed services, but nonetheless failing to prevent tragedies like that of Pvt. Johnson.
In spite of these innovations, complaints by servicewomen concerning misconduct by their male counterparts have continued, especially during the Iraqi War, now in its seventh year. In an after shock of the now infamous Abu Ghraib prisoner of war abuses, its commander (former) General Janis Karpinski, revealed that female soldiers under her command had died from dehydration since they refrained from consuming liquids at night, fearing they would be raped by male soldiers en route to out of the way and poorly lit latrines–military word for toilets. (Truthout.org report–January 2006, Military hides cause of women soldeirs’ death, by Marjorie Cohn.)

Joint Base Balad is Iraq’s largest base with 20,000 plus troops within its confines. The post resembles a small city with its own newspaper, and such conveniences as a Subway sandwich shop, a Popeyes Chicken Restaurant, a Pizza Hut, a 24-hour Burger King, and a Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream store, in addition to the Post Exchange (PX), giving concrete evidence of the Pentagon’s plans for long range involvement in this part of the world.

This and other large military compounds in Iraq are saturated with electric generators used to produce energy to sustain these conveniences and the mission in general. This equipment in turn generates so much noise that a woman’s screams of distress are likely to be drowned out at night. Female soldiers resort to traveling in groups and carrying knives for protection against their own brothers in arms.

What is known by her father is that after going off duty, Johnson, an African American native of Florissant, Missouri, went to the PX with members of her unit where she bought a soft drink, M&Ms, and lip balm with a debit card—which has not been recovered—on July 19, 2005. She then left this group to join some friends to go jogging. She never met them, and was not seen again until her body was discovered the next day in a burning tent during the early morning.

Just a few days shy of her 20th birthday, Johnson’s body was found mutilated with a broken nose, black eye, and some corrosive liquid applied to her genital area. Despite the initial assessment of homicide by Army investigators—most likely based on the presence of abrasions and bruises all over her body, burns to the right side of her torso, and a pair of gloves that had been glued to her charred hands—the chain of command reversed their view and ruled her death a suicide by self-inflected gunshot wound through her mouth, presumably by the M-16 rifle issued to her and found next to her body along with an aerosol can that may have been used as an accelerant to burn her body and set the tent on fire.
Oddly, though her corpse was burnt, the clothing she’d donned to exercise in was untouched by the fire, and the bullet that killed her was never recovered.

The quest for closure

Johnson has been described by her family and teachers as an honors student who played the violin in her high school orchestra, and was committed to charity and volunteer work. Before her enlistment she was roundly dissuaded from joining the Army by family members and educators alike. Her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was in supply, but mission requirements moved her into a communications enclave, with the unexpected bonus of being able to call home nearly every day. According to her father, she enjoyed an especially close bond with her family, particularly her sister LaKesha, just two years younger.

The deceased soldier’s father, Dr. John Johnson–a psychologist, has worked as a counselor with at-risk individuals and service members returning from the Vietnam War with substance abuse issues, and as such, has years of experience treating people in a clinical setting. Neither he nor any of the other family members recall LaVena showing any signs of depression or suicidal ideation. Because of this, as well as the numerous irregularities observed in the investigation, the Johnson family has strived to bring their daughter’s case before congressional and senate review.

Dr. Johnson talked at length with Our Weekly via telephone about the events surrounding LaVena’s demise that convinced him that a cover up was being perpetrated. Particularly vexing was the scenario involving a 5’ 1” tall female being able to position a 40” long rifle with the muzzle in her mouth and squeezing the trigger. Additionally, he noted the similarities between his daughter’s death and a young Caucasian soldier billeted in Iraqi whose death was determined a suicide, Texas native Tina Priest..

Pfc. Priest was found in her room 11 days after filing rape accusations against a fellow soldier. Like Pvt. Johnson, Priest was 20 years old and stood approximately five feet tall, making it difficult to execute the self-inflicted gunshot wound said to be the cause of her death. Army officials have subsequently suggested she discharged the weapon with her toe.

Dr. Johnson has spoken by telephone to Priest’s mother on two separate occasions and believes the parallels linking these separate events suggest a pattern of deviance practiced by those in the hierarchy administrating Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The autopsy for Pvt. Johnson was performed at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, the principal site for handling the remains of fallen service members on the east coast. Forensic analysis was done in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gillem, Georgia. It ruled that LaVena Johnson died as a result of a gunshot to the head, with all other factors pertinent to the case was determined to be inconclusive.

Her family was quick to dispute these findings. And with the assistance of Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr., (D.-Mo.), and the utilization of the Freedom of Information Act, Johnson’s family procured a CD/ROM containing the data from the investigation, and received an audience with the special agents/forensics experts involved. A petition with 12,000 signatures was presented to both the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees.

This dissatisfaction also led her relatives to finance a second autopsy, this time by Dr. Michael A. Graham, medical examiner of the city of St. Louis and president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Dr. Johnson recalls that Dr. Graham charged $400 an hour for the three hour procedure, which was attended by another medical examiner; Dr. Mary E. Case, and a local T.V. crew from CBS affiliate KMOV. He also remembers Dr. Graham mentioning that a personal friend (Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edward Reedy) signed off on the original autopsy in Delaware. Dr. Graham’s autopsy came to the same conclusion, that the subject died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head, but otherwise was inconclusive.

More unresolved issues

Johnson and Priest represent just two of at least 41 deaths of female personnel who have succumbed to “non-combat” related injuries in the Middle Eastern theatre of combat, including African American Army Major Gloria D. Davis, who allegedly shot herself after being implicated in an $11 million bribery investigation involving a major defense contractor. Curiously, despite her possible complicity in governmental fraud, Davis was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, noted for its restrictive requirements for interment.

A theory of released aggression

In view of the fact that prostitution has been a fact of life among troops serving extended time garrisoned in Germany, Korea, Vietnam and other locals, surprisingly little has been documented on the practices of Coalition forces in Afganistan and Iraqi (see the article, The Sex Lives and Sexual Frustrations of U.S. troops in Iraq, by Stephen Soldz: www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/4692). Traditionally, military brass have “looked the other way,” favoring the oldest profession as a sexual release, providing the troops with a morale builder and a method to burn off excess aggression.

Perhaps it has been overshadowed by the well publicized corporate contracting scandals and wholesale mismanagement of the war at the highest levels of millitary and political supervision.

Given the longer war zone deployments and its connection to the increase in psychological problems experienced by recent veterans, it is tempting to attribute these increases in assaults to the effects of extended life in the “pressure cooker” environment of unconventional warfare with ill-defined objectives. (Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif), reports military rapes jumped 73 % from 2004 to 2006.)

In any case, it poses the question of how much combat stress has affected the behavior of troops stationed in the Middle East, and more specifically, the threat of rape within their ranks.

This issue has affected female civilian employees as well, the most notable being that of Jamie Leigh Jones, who was raped during her tenure as an administrative assistant for KRB in 2005. (KRB is a company that makes steel bars or rods used to reinforce concrete.) She has since filed a lawsuit against KRB, testified about her ordeal before Congress, and founded a non-profit advocacy agency for American government workers who have been victimized while working over seas (www.jamiesfoundation.org/).

Col. Ann Wright (Ret.-U.S. Army) has enjoyed a varied career during her tenure with the Adjuntant General’s Corps, and later as a diplomat with the State Department before tendering her resignation directly to Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003. She became disillusioned (as have a large number of career officers of field rank and above), with her government’s foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East. Wright became acquainted with the Johnson family through her activity with the anti-war movement and specific concerns about violence against service women. This includes what she sees is a pattern of deaths and/or suicides as a result of “non-combat related injuries.”

During a telephone interview with Our Weekly, Col. Wright admitted she is mystified by the way the investigation and subsequent autopsies were conducted, and was notably perplexed that the second coroner’s verdict took eight months to reach the family of the deceased.
Concern about increased incidents of gender specific violence–perpetrated not only against Iraqis (civilians and insurgents), but also against military personnel–have been voiced by high profile figures such as Rep. Jane Harman and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), major proponents of House Congressional Resolution 397, which calls for increased inquiry and the prosecution of rape and sexual assault.

The specter of gender persecution casts an additional shadow over the Department of Defense’s “zero tolerance” policy, and a war that might already surpass the Vietnam conflict in its unpopularity. This in turn might raise the anxiety levels of Americans whose daughters, mothers, and wives are in the arena, civilian or military, and the ire of Muslim extremists who see this as another example of the secular corruption spawned by the Western infidels who threaten their existence.

While a good deal of information about the mystery surrounding her death may be found on the Internet, surprisingly few of the mainstream news agencies have provided in depth coverage. At the same time, military and governmental entities have alternately been unable or unwilling to reach substantial conclusions about what transpired that fateful evening in July of 2005.

The staff of Essence, the women’s magazine geared towards an African American readership, reportedly went through a lot of soul searching (since the Army is a major advertiser in that periodical) before running a 300 word article.

Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) Paul Hudson, a senior Army criminal supervisor and an organizer of the meeting between the Johnson family and the investigative team, was reportedly on leave and was unavailable to Our Weekly during the completion of this article.
Official Army spokesman Paul Boyce informed Our Weekly via phone that the death of Pvt. Johnson was thoroughly investigated and data shared with the decedent’s family. While the case is officially closed, any additional updates would be closely “reviewed and evaluated.”
Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo), and the Armed Services Committee he chairs have been sympathetic to the Johnson Family, but since the initial contact, in the words of Dr. Johnson, have “dropped the ball,” and apparently have yet to commit to a formal investigation.
Freshman Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), has gone on record to declare she and other law makers have “…gotta find the truth about what happened to this young lady. Her family deserves that at a minimum…” Maria Speiser, spokesperson for McCaskill responded to phone overtures by Our Weekly by explaining that the Senator’s office has a policy of not commenting on continuing investigations.

Meanwhile, the circumstances of LaVena Johnson’s death, while not widely covered in the United States, have attracted international media attention in large part due to the sway of the Internet and the aggressive commentary of individual bloggers there in. The Johnsons have notified Our Weekly of their plans to file a criminal lawsuit.

The deaths of Privates Johnson and Priest are just two of the sexually based crimes involving female personnel in the Middle Eastern and state-side, and both are among the myriad of scandals plaguing this polarizing conflict.

Those who wish to keep informed of further developments in this tragedy may do so by accessing http://lavenajohnson.com/, a Web site maintained by St. Louis writer and blogger Phillip Barron.

7 comments:

MacDaddy said...

Kswim: Thanks for signing up and becoming a follower of daddyBstrong. Looking forward to you coming back and making comments. By the way, I checked out your blog "Words for Hire." It looks like a great practical resource to help businesses market their products. Good luck in your business.

Vigilante said...

Here's the link to Phillip Barron's Lavena Johnson Site. Thanks to MacDaddy for posting her story!

MacDaddy said...

Kim: Thanks for signing up as a follower of daddyBstrong. Hope you'll drop by from to time and leave a comment. I'll link you and come to see you too. Blessings.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Mac, We create this stuff when we create soldiers. Not every person who enters the military has the ability to separate out the madness and necessities of war from the rest of humanity.
Even when they do, they often suffer PTSD.
What these monsters did to Ms. Johnson is collateral damage. Those who did it might have otherwise lived their lives without ever harming anyone. . . or, they we brutal monsters to begin with and Ms. Johnson got in their way.

Either way, it's a horror that no family should have to deal with.
I also have beautiful daughters. I feel the pain that will never go away that this family is suffering.

MacDaddy said...

Sagacious: Thanks. I think it's noteworthy that the military fought providing information to her father until the very end. In fact, he had to pay quite a bit through lawyers to get the info through the Freedom of Information Act...

And I thought the military's bungling of the Pat Tillman situation was bad.

Anonymous said...

So are they saying that she set HERSELF on fire too a-f-t-e-r the gunshot?!! What b.s. but sadly this kind of thing has been going on in the military for the longest of times.

MacDaddy said...

Anon: I don't know what they're saying now. I'm trying to stay tuned in to Johnson's site to figure out what's going on myself. And, yes, this has been going on a long time. But that's no excuse for any of us not to keep fighting against this. It is so horrific, so demoralizing, that it can't help but tear at the very fabric of our sense of justice and patriotism. But keep coming back. I'll do my best to keep you updated. Thanks.