Jul 25, 2013 - Issue 526

  BlackCommentator.com: Murder by the Military: Remembering LaVena Johnson - A View from the Battlefield - By Jamala Rogers - BC Editorial Board

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LaVena Johnson’s family would be celebrating her 28th birthday on July 26. Sadly, they now have to also acknowledge another anniversary - that of her death on July 19, 2005. It is a tragedy that grips my heart today as much as it did eight years ago.

Lavena’s story resonates strongly with me for a number of reasons: a young, black woman, a victim of rape and murder and an Army recruit. Every chance I have to talk about any of those issues - lost life of a youth, rape, and the military industrial complex - I raise LaVena’s story. When the senate hearings on military rape were taking place on Capitol Hill a few months ago, I shouted out Lavena’s name at the TV as my way of interjecting her story into the proceedings.

LaVena was just shy of her 20th birthday when her parents got word of her “suicide.” The honor student enlisted in the Army immediately following graduation from high school. She was deployed to Iraq and was dead in eight weeks. LaVena became the first female soldier in Missouri to die in the Iraqi invasion. It was not a distinction she was looking for when she decided to follow her Dad’s footsteps into the military.

It became painfully clear from the autopsy photos that were finally recovered that this was no suicide. It is impossible for LaVena to knock out her own teeth, dislocate her shoulder, rape herself and then set her own body on fire. Yet that was the Army’s story and they were sticking to it.

Dr. John and Linda Johnson, the grief-stricken parents, have been on their own difficult journey to find the truth and get justice for their daughter. Their tenacity alone has garnered worldwide media attention on their daughter’s case.

Dr. Johnson was the first to conduct his own investigation into the murder. Said Dr. Johnson about his unrelenting efforts, “My daughter was beaten, raped, murdered, set on fire and then they tried to burn her tent down with her body in it...so it will be a cold day in hell before I stop, and I mean that with all my heart.”

Lavena’s website and Color of Change generated thousands of signatures that called on an investigation in her suspicious death by the various Congressional oversight committees. Lavena’s family has received the support of influential people like retired Colonel Ann Wright, a feisty veteran who has seen her fair share of injustices in the military. In 2010, the documentary “A Silent Truth” was produced, highlighting the many discrepancies in Lavena’s death.

The energy and courage of many families like the Johnsons helped to fuel the growing pressure to hold congressional hearings. Recently the U.S. Senate held its first subcommittee panel on sexual assault in the military in over a decade. Testimony after testimony revealed “a pervasive culture of harassment and danger in which victims had little or no redress.”

On July 19, 2011 - the 6th anniversary of LaVena’s death - the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI) chose the case for its Bauder College students to work on. Conclusion of their probe is pending.

Until citizens demand that the armed forces put processes in place that treat sexual assault as a legitimate crime and not as an “occupational hazard,” then justice will continue to elude the young men and women serving in the armed forces. In the meantime, I will continue my crusade against people joining an imperialist military representing a government that treats them badly before, during and after their service.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Jamala Rogers, founder and Chair Emeritus of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis. She is an organizer, trainer and speaker. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle. Click here to contact Ms. Rogers.

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