Have you heard about the story of LaVena Johnson?
Well, maybe you should read on.
Johnson, a high school honor student, decided to enlist
in the Army in order to pay for college. On July 19, 2005, after
serving eight weeks in Iraq, she was killed, just eight days short
of her twentieth birthday.
Private Johnson - she was posthumously promoted to
Private First Class - was found dead on a military base in Balad,
Iraq, in a tent belonging to military contractor KBR, a spinoff and former subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s company. She was the first woman
from Missouri to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And the U.S. Army officially ruled her death a suicide,
she shot herself in the head, case closed. But this is where the
Johnson’s family knew something was wrong. They had
talked to her on the phone a few days earlier, and she was in a
great mood as usual, and was planning to come home for the holidays,
earlier than expected.
Questions were raised when LaVena’s family viewed
her body. There were suspicious bruises, and while the military
claimed that this right-handed soldier had shot herself in the head
with an M-16 rifle, the gunshot wound was on the left side of her
the truth began to make itself known when the family received the
autopsy report and photos they requested under the Freedom of Information
Act: The 5 foot tall, 100 lb. woman had been struck in the face
with a blunt instrument, probably a weapon. Her nose had been broken,
and her teeth knocked backwards. There were bruises, teeth marks
and scratches on the upper part of her body. Her back and right
hand had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. Her
genital area was bruised and lacerated, and lye had been poured
into her vagina. The debris found on her person suggested her body
had been dragged.
And despite all this mutilation, she was fully clothed
when her body was found in the tent, with a blood trail leading
to the tent.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Army has refused
to investigate. Through an online petition, ColorofChange.org demanded an investigation by the House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform.
The story of LaVena Johnson is really several stories
in one, and is really about more than an individual Black woman
who was raped and murdered by her fellow soldiers. African Americans
have fought in every war since the Revolutionary War, and often
their country has been a far more formidable foe to them than the
so-called enemy they were told to fight.
Often, youth of color, lacking in opportunities at
home and in need of money, look to the military as a career option
and a way to pay for school. In light of all the death and destruction
of the unjust and immoral war in Iraq, fewer of them took the bait
this time, and opposition
to the war among Black youth has posed a challenge for Army
these young people were channeling war resisters of a prior generation,
such as Muhammad Ali, who once said “I ain't got no quarrel with
them Viet Cong ... They never called me nigger.” That war was devastating
to poor communities of all races, and the Black community in particular,
as their young men came home in the thousands, returning in body
bags, or maimed, traumatized, as dope fiends, or completely insane.
It was this “cruel manipulation of the poor,” as Dr. King called
it, one that united people of different races “in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor
village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block
years later, we find ourselves in another unjust and senseless war
in Iraq, this “home invasion” as Philadelphia veteran journalist,
Reggie Bryant, aptly characterized it. And LaVena Johnson is a symbol
of this war, as a casualty who risks being swept under the rug.
We may never know how many crimes have been hidden in Iraq. War
is good for that sort of thing and little else, concealing the rapes,
murders, shooting of children, bombing and pillaging of homes, the
money stealing, and other crimes that are committed - including
the crime that is war itself. People are taught to kill like animals,
to dehumanize and humiliate others.
But the case of Pfc. Johnson raises yet another issue:
violence against women is a problem in the U.S. military, and other
murders and suspicious deaths similar to LaVena are being classified
as suicides. And Johnson was not the only woman to die a suspicious
death on the Balad military base.
As retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel, Ann
Wright, noted, one in three women who join the military
will be raped or sexually assaulted by servicemen. Of the 94 military
women who died in Iraq or during Operation Iraqi Freedom, 36 died
from injuries unrelated to combat. While a number of them were ruled
as suicides and homicides, 15 deaths remain which smell of suspicion.
For example, eight women from Fort Hood, Texas died of so-called
“non-combat related injuries” at Camp Taji, three of whom were raped
before their deaths.
Also, a number of female
employees of Halliburton/KBR have been sexually harassed, assaulted and gang
raped in Iraq. Their employment contract calls for such cases to
be decided through arbitration rather than in a court of law. Halliburton
and KBR, these war profiteers awash with money, even wanted one
alleged rape victim to pay for their costs to defend themselves
in arbitration. Lord have mercy…
It is clear that under Bush, no friend of justice,
the cases of these brutalized and murdered women could not see the
light of day. But we are living in a new time, so it seems, and
perhaps now is the time that the family of LaVena Johnson, and all
those other nameless women murdered by the military, will find the
justice they deserve.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These
Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book,
States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons
(St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International
UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference
as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and
served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.