Soldier's Family Challenges Army Suicide Report The Army says 19-year-old Pfc. LaVena Johnson committed suicide while serving in Iraq, but her family isn't buying it. John Johnson explains why he believes his daughter was brutally raped and murdered — and why the Army wants it covered up. Johnson is joined by retired Col. Ann Wright, who raises awareness of sexual assault in the military.

Soldier's Family Challenges Army Suicide Report

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, our weekly peek inside the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, our appreciation for two pop culture stars who died over the weekend, and my thoughts about the upcoming presidential debates.

But first, it's time for our Behind Closed Doors conversation. It's the place where we try to take on difficult subjects, things that are hard to talk about. Today we're going to talk about a young woman who died in Iraq in 2005. LaVena Johnson was 19, an Army private. The Army says she killed herself, but her family does not believe that. In fact, they think she was brutally raped and murdered and that the Army is trying to cover it up. And some advocates believe LaVena Johnson is just one of a number of young servicewomen who have been targets of sexual violence, that the Army is covering it up or looking the other way.

Joining us is LaVena Johnson's father, John Johnson. Also with us is Colonel Ann Wright. She is retired from the U.S. Army Reserve and she's an advocate for the prevention and more aggressive prosecution of sexual assault in the military. We did invite the Army to join this discussion. Their officials declined, but they did send a statement that I will be reading after our conversation. And I do want to warn our listeners that there may be some graphic language or imagery that might be disturbing to hear.

But that said, Colonel Wright and Dr. Johnson, I welcome you both and I thank you for speaking with us about this difficult issue.

Dr. JOHN JOHNSON: Thank you.

Colonel ANN WRIGHT (U.S. Army Reserve, Retired): Thank you.

MARTIN: And Dr. Johnson, first I want to express my condolences for the death of your daughter and I wanted to ask how you're doing.

Dr. JOHNSON: We're doing OK. This has been a devastating impact on my entire family. My wife is just at - you know, just go through emotional swings and every time we talk about this it upsets her, you know. And so I try to keep her out of it as much as I can. But she's doing a lot better in that she's now been able to talk about it a little bit more. So some of these interviews that we've had where she's had a chance to participate, she's gotten through them real well.

MARTIN: When you talked to LaVena before this terrible situation occurred, did you have a sense of how her time in Iraq was going? Did she ever express any concerns about anything over there?

Dr. JOHNSON: Absolutely not. In fact, LaVena spent a considerable amount of her time trying to relax us, because we, both of us, were opposed to her going into the Army. We thought she'd go to college because she was an honor roll student. But when she got to Iraq, she says, look, I'm not where they are fighting. You know my job is right down the street so don't worry about me. I'm fine. She had talked about rotating back to the States and then being in the States for a year and then coming back to Iraq, and...

MARTIN: So I should mention that you are a trained psychologist. You have a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology. So you, not just as her father but as a trained professional, did not detect any signs of her being depressed or anything of that sort.

Dr. JOHNSON: None of that. And one thing further, I worked for the Department of the Army in their drug abuse program. And the first thing they taught me is how to pick up people that have suicidal tendencies and I did not detect that in my daughter.

MARTIN: She died on July 18th of 2005. How were you informed of this? What were you told?

Dr. JOHNSON: OK. On the 19th of July, at 7:30 in the morning, someone banged on our door. My wife and I both jumped up because, you know, those are horrifying sounds that early in the morning. So my wife looked out the window and she said, John, there's a soldier out on the porch. And I said, Oh, God. Something has happened to LaVena. So I went downstairs and I opened the door and this staff sergeant was standing there. He said, are you Mr. John Johnson, father of LaVena L. Johnson? I said, yes, I am.

My wife, she had already started, you know, you could tell she was bracing herself for bad news. And he saw her, so he stepped in the house and he said, are you Linda Johnson, mother of LaVena L. Johnson? And she said yes. He took his little portfolio out and he started reading: "I have a message for you from the secretary of Defense. This morning, LaVena L. Johnson died of self-inflicted wounds." That's how they brought it to us.

MARTIN: And you subsequently did get the autopsy report and it also says - it says it was performed on July 22nd and also says that she died of self-inflicted wounds, that the manner of death is determined to be suicide. How did you begin to develop your suspicions and what did you do about it?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, first of all, we didn't believe it because we knew our daughter and suicide wouldn't have been something that she would even consider. However, the very next - in fact, the very same day, I started calling people that I knew that knew people in Iraq. And one of our friends was a police officer and he knew some people over there because we were told the next day that LaVena was found dead in her barracks with a gunshot wound to the head.

He got an email that she was not found dead in her barracks. She was found dead in a contractor's tent. That same day or the next day, I can't remember which one, we got a - a relative got a message from Iraq and they said LaVena had friends on the DFAS2(ph) side of that post and that's where they found her body in a contractor's tent. So right away we knew we were going to be faced with a bunch of lies.

MARTIN: You made the decision to have an autopsy done in addition to the one that the Army did. What was the discrepancy there? What did they find and report to you that the Army's autopsy did not?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, actually, we actually ran into a bit of a problem there. We hired the top pathologist here in St. Louis city, but two days before the autopsy was supposed to commence, he called me and said, we have a slight problem. One of the people that signed off on the autopsy in the Army is a good friend of mine. So I said, what's your point? He said, well, my point is you can get somebody else to do the autopsy if you want to. I said, so are you are telling me that you are not professional enough to do an autopsy and give an unbiased opinion? He said, no problems, I can do the autopsy for you. So he did the autopsy but what he didn't do was to include the physical damage to that body that I know he saw because he took pictures and x-rays.

MARTIN: Tell me what some of the evidence that you saw that led you to that conclusion. What was the damage to the body? What were some of the things that you saw and that he subsequently saw that lead you to the conclusion that she was murdered?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, he never said she was murdered and he didn't say it was a suicide. He took the middle-of-the-road approach. But we already knew that because ten months after my daughter was dead, the Army sent us black and white Xerox copies of everything. So, but my brother, Joseph Johnson, has the degree in criminal science, so when I took him the information he went through it and in 45 minutes he called me up and said, John, they murdered LaVena and we're going to use their own paperwork to prove it.

MARTIN: What happened to her? What evidence were you able to discover of what you think happened?

Dr. JOHNSON: What we had suspected we confirmed and more. She had abrasions all over her face. She had scratches all over her arm. Her nose was broke from right to left and concaved. Her teeth were knocked loose. Her lip was split and bloodshot on the base of it. In addition to that, she had a burn on her body that ran from her shoulder all the way down to the bend in her thigh. So it looks like somebody poured something on her and lit it, and it burned her body real badly and it also burned her right hand.

The other piece of evidence that we got in the black and whites was a picture of her vaginal area. Her vaginal area was torn terribly and someone poured something in it, looked like it could be lye, and we think they did that to destroy DNA evidence. Then they dressed her and dumped her in a contractor's tent. She was found with a bench turned upside down on top of her. Someone lit an accelerant and set it on the bottom of the bench and they set the tent on fire. So their intent was to burn the tent down with her body in it.

MARTIN: And the Army's autopsy makes no mention of all of the trauma that her body seems to have suffered. She seems to have been beaten and she seems to have fought back.

Dr. JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: And why do you think that's so? Why wouldn't they want to get to the bottom of who would do something like that?

Dr. JOHNSON: Because it's probably involving somebody with some rank or some prestige and they're covering for him.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Dr. John Johnson, he is the father of the late Private Lavena Johnson, and retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel Ann Wright. She's an advocate for further awareness and prosecution of sexual assault in the military.

Colonel Wright, I want to bring you into the conversation now. You have taken on this issue as an advocate, the issue of sexual assault in the military. What do you make of what Dr. Johnson is telling us here? Do you find that credible that somebody would - that Army investigators would, a., willingly turn a blind eye to this level of a vicious assault on a fellow soldier?

Col. WRIGHT: Well, we're finding that yes, it has happened before. I mean, you look at the Pat Tillman case. The military covered up, actually, what happened there. Just to name another one of them is Tina Priest, the young woman who was raped in Iraq and ten days later her body was found, and the military says that she committed suicide. There are so many of these cases that really need to be professionally investigated now outside the military chain of command because we're seeing that they are, in my opinion, being complicit in a cover-up of what really happened to these women.

MARTIN: Colonel Wright, could I just ask you how widespread you think the problem of sexual assault, particularly service member on service member, is in the military? I just want to mention that just last month, Congresswoman Jane Harman, the Democrat from California who's chair of the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee, called for a legislation calling on the Department of Defense to develop a strategy to address sexual assault in the military, and her report indicates that since 2002, some 60,000 female veterans reported having been raped or sexually assaulted. Almost 20 percent of the women seen at VA facilities nationally report some form of sexual violence being directed at them. Do you think those numbers are right? Does that sound right to you?

Col. WRIGHT: Well, the numbers are low. We know - those are just the reported cases. And if you look at what the Veterans Administration statistics show, that one in three women that come into the VA for treatment now are saying that they've been sexually assaulted while they were in the military. Those are the reported cases.

The unreported, I would say, are probably at least twice as many as the reported one because it's very difficult to report these things, particularly if the perpetrator is a member of your chain of command, and we're seeing that as what's called "command rape," that men are using their influence over junior soldiers, to say, if you don't what I tell you to do, you know, we are in a combat zone, you can be found dead tomorrow and you'd better do what I tell you.

MARTIN: Dr. Johnson, I wanted to ask you. Once you - you and your wife had your suspicions, you then followed up, investigating on your own, asking for another autopsy, reviewed the results of the autopsy. What did you do then?

Dr. JOHNSON: We didn't ask for a second investigation, but immediately after we put a package together, we put their pictures and we sent that back to the Army immediately. They ignored the physical evidence and what they did - they concentrated on the motive. Actually...

MARTIN: What did you - I'm sorry, what did you mean, they concentrated on the motive? They...

Dr. JOHNSON: Yeah. They...

MARTIN: They tried to create a case for why they felt that LaVena might have committed suicide?

Dr. JOHNSON: Committed suicide. Correct.

MARTIN: OK.

Dr. JOHNSON: And this is in essence what they said, that Lavena got a boyfriend, came down with a sexually transmitted disease and talked around, advocating that she hated her life, she wanted to die, and all of that in five weeks.

MARTIN: You are a veteran yourself. You've had a - you've been a civilian working in the military. You come from a family with a service background. Are you - how you responding to this? Are you surprised by this? Or how does this strike you?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, when I was in the service, the military wasn't integrated by sex like it is now. I was appalled. After my daughter died, I started doing research and I had people gathering information for me because we put a group together to deal with this. And I have to admit, when they started bringing me the data on what was going on since I had been in the service, it was awful, awful disturbing.

MARTIN: This - your daughter's - the case of your daughter has become also something of, much discussed in the blogosphere, particularly the African-American blogosphere. Some are making the suggestion that this - these circumstances have not been fully investigated because your daughter is African-American. Do you think that that's true?

Dr. JOHNSON: I don't think race has anything to do with LaVena being dead. The only thing now that does concern me is that if we're talking white males and she being a black female, that could be an issue. But as far as race being the dynamics of what happened to LaVena, I don't agree with that.

MARTIN: What about gender? Do you think there's an overall issue around things that happen to women in the military not being taking seriously?

Dr. JOHNSON: I've gathered some information where their attitude is, when women sign up they get what they deserve. That's their attitude.

MARTIN: Dr. Johnson, what's the status of your investigation or efforts to have the Army revisit this case?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, as far as the Army is concerned, nothing's changed. They actually reiterated the information from the paperwork, you know, which I already knew. And then I asked them a number of questions and I extracted it from the same paperwork that they read from. They either didn't remember, they couldn't explain it, and things they had say it to me that I reiterated, they say they don't remember saying that.

MARTIN: When you confronted them about the physical evidence, saying that there was significant trauma to her body, the fact that she was clearly beaten, that there were signs that she was beaten, that she fought back, what did they say?

Dr. JOHNSON: Nothing. That's when they shut up.

MARTIN: Colonel Wright, I wanted to ask you for a final thought about what - well, actually I want to ask both of you for a final thought about what you think should happen now, not just in regard to LaVena's case, but just overall?

Col. WRIGHT: Well, I think the U.S. Congress needs to step in and to require the Army to reopen these investigations.

MARTIN: Mr. Johnson, what about you?

Dr. JOHNSON: Yeah. We go to the polls and we vote politicians in to run our country. And nobody in any kind of public position has the right to be above the law. We're appealing to Congress to look into these deaths, to take over our country and do what it is we have voted them to do, and that is run America.

MARTIN: John Johnson is a psychologist and a motivational speaker in St. Louis, Missouri. His daughter, Private LaVena Johnson, died in Iraq in 2005. He joined us from St. Louis. Retired U.S. Army Reserve Colonel Ann Wright is an advocate for greater awareness and more aggressive prosecution of assault in the military. She joined us by phone from Las Vegas, Nevada. And I want to say once again, Dr. Johnson, my condolences to you and your wife for your loss.

Dr. JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

Col. WRIGHT: Thank you.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, we received the following the statement from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command about LaVena Johnson's death. Here it is: "CID's extensive investigation found PFC LaVena Johnson's death to be from a self-inflicted gunshot. This finding coincides with the opinion rendered by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, whose findings also determined the death to be from a self-inflicted gunshot. CID conducted a very thorough investigation, as well as a very thorough review of the case, and stands by the findings of our investigation. As with all CID cases, if new information pertinent to this investigation becomes available, CID will reopen the investigation if warranted."

That's the end of the statement, and the statement will be on our Web site, the Tell Me More page of npr.org.

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