Friday, March 30, 2007

Vet Net, "Unsung," and 2000 signatures

Chuc Smith of Veterans for Peace, who co-hosted the airing of Vet Net (station KDHX) in which I was a guest, is pleased to report that the show is now available in streaming audio. It can also be downloaded as a podcast. Our show on LaVena Johnson is the first one available. Get it here!

Last weekend, many visitors came to the petition site by way of an impassioned piece on the LaVena Johnson case posted at Welcome to Pottersville. It was heartening to read, and a fine example of the writing and advocacy many others are doing on behalf of LaVena's family.

LaVena’s death just eight days shy of her 20th birthday would be an excellent counter recruiting commercial as to why you should do everything in your power to keep your daughter from enlisting. The straight A student, who wasn’t ready for college right out of high school, wanted to travel, earn money for college for later. She was seduced by the siren call of a recruiter at Hazelwood High School who told her only what he wanted her to hear, what she wanted to hear. After her funeral, her father went through her drawer and found a recruiting brochure that said, “Earn $25,000 toward college.” [...]

Gone now are the pie in the sky promises of college and $25,000 for it. Now, her usefulness at an end, the Army cannot and will not even tell her family the truth about her death. Here’s what they will talk about: When LeKesha Johnson, the youngest of the five Johnson kids and the sole surviving daughter, became a senior, the Army began calling the family. When the Johnsons finally told them that they’d already lost a daughter in Iraq and that no one else would be enlisting, the calls kept coming, anyway. Back then, the Johnsons didn’t know they could opt out and prevent the DoD from using No Child Left Behind to get their contact information. Now they know but only too late.

I recommend everyone to read the post in its entirety. Heartfelt thanks to the author, who goes by the non de plume "jurassicpork." I will gratefully post his actual name here should he grant his permission.

Last night the number of signatures on the LaVena Johnson petition passed the threshold of two thousand. Each name on this list, every concerned person, is valued and important.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Message to the Missouri delegation in Congress

We are informed that members of Senate and House committees like hearing from real people.

This is fortunate for you members of the Missouri delegation to Congress, as there are some real people - the family of Pfc. LaVena Johnson - who would like to talk to you.

In particular:

Senator Claire McCaskill, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator Kit Bond, vice-chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

Representative Ike Skelton, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Representative Todd Akin, member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Representative William Lacy Clay, who has already expressed an interest in the matter of LaVena Johnson's death and its subsequent investigation.

We hope that you will act on behalf of a grieving Missouri family, a service family that has lost its daughter, and compel the Army to reopen the investigation into this young woman's death.

(Readers who are constituents of any of the representatives above are asked to contact them with your concerns regarding Pfc. LaVena Johnson. All Missouri citizens reading this are asked to contact the two senators listed above. Thank you.)

The word continues to spread

I tried last week to tally up all of the blogs, sites, and forums that have made a point of discussing the LaVena Johnson story or have linked to the petition website, but I soon realized that I'd never have time to count them all. The response to the story has been greatly encouraging, and the best I can manage for most of these kind souls is a blanket-yet-heartfelt thank you.

I would like to express particular thanks, however, to those people that have written about LaVena in direct response to a request. Oliver Willis was not only good enough to write about LaVena last week, but made that topic the first featured after his blog's redesign. Steve Benes of Salon's The Blog Report literally put the LaVena Johnson story on the radar today by linking to this weekend's AlterNet piece. Many thanks to them both.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Security measure added to petition page

Password authorization has been added to the petition page in order to reduce computer-generated spamming. An image containing a short password is visible on the page; visitors must type those letters and numbers into the password field before clicking the "Submit" button.

The password will be updated periodically.

Authorization is always an inconvenience; I hope it's a minor one in this case. Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Two soldiers, two families, and justice for one

For service families searching for the truth of how loved ones died overseas, not even the seeming advantage of fame can push the military into a timely and decent response. It has taken the family of Army Ranger and former pro football player Cpl. Pat Tillman some three years to get to this point: the Associated Press reports that the Pentagon will soon fault a number of officers - ranking as high as generals - for errors in the handling and disclosure of the young soldier's death by fratricide.

In the meantime, the family of Pfc. LaVena Johnson - a soldier not famous, unremarked, unsung - is still rebuffed by an Army that refuses to reexamine her death or revisit its claim of suicide despite disturbing indications of foul play and sexual assault.

One year ago, I drew the too-clear parallel between the cases of Cpl.Tillman and Pfc. Johnson, but everything said can be pared down to the pointed observation once made by Tillman's mother:

"This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual," she said. "How are they treating others?"

It's time to level the field. Full as much as the Tillmans, the Johnson family deserves an honest accounting of their soldier's death and the honor and respect due every service family.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thanks to Vet Net for show on LaVena Johnson

Many, many thanks to Charles Clyde and Chuc Smith for hosting me on Vet Net yesterday (Thursday) for a taped show on the LaVena Johnson story. Charles is the regular host of the show, broadcast on KDHX; Chuc is president of the St. Louis chapter of Veterans for Peace. This was a follow up to their March 12 show on the death of Pfc. Johnson. The show taped yesterday will be aired at 5:30 a.m. Central on Monday, March 26. (Not the 25th, as I posted earlier.) The show can be heard at that time via the Internet (RealPlayer format for download); just click on the "Listen Online" link at the top of the show's home page. (Streaming capability may come soon to Vet Net ; I'll alert folks here when it happens.)

It was a good conversation. Chuc and Charles are quite familiar with LaVena's story; additionally, Chuc and his organization, VFP, have been in touch with the Johnson family and are working to bring the story to the attention of such vital officials as Claire McCaskill, newly-elected Missouri senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Charles and Chuc (and Chuc's wife Denise, whom I had the pleasure of meeting) were gracious in their thanks for the petition effort, which is only made worthwhile by each citizen who has lent their name to the effort. Thanks again to all of you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

From Teresa in Michigan to Senator Carl Levin

Early on in the drive to prompt public officials to come to the aid of the Johnson family, Teresa shared with me a letter she wrote to Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chair of the Armed Service Committee. With her kind permission, that letter is posted here.

Dear Senator Levin,

I am pleased that you are head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

I understand that you are extremely busy with seeing to issues with the Armed Services that have been sorely neglected for many years.

I would like to draw your attention to the case of Pfc. LaVena Johnson.

Pfc LaVena Johnson was killed in Iraq. Her death as been listed as "died of self-inflicted, noncombat injuries" yet there is evidence to the contrary.

Indications of physical abuse that went unremarked by the autopsy.
The absence of psychological indicators of suicidal thoughts; 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 attempted to set LaVena's body on fire.

Truth has been in very short supply these last 7 years. I have the greatest hope that you being a person of principle and honesty will rectify that problem.

I draw your attention to Pfc LaVena Johnson's death because the truth of her death is needed.

Like Cpl. Pat Tilman's death, LaVena Johnson's death requires further investigation. Both they and their families have earned the truth.

Please I ask that you do your best for Pfc LaVena Johnson and her family. They have paid a high price.

We can not bring Pfc. Johnson back to life but you can help bring out the truth. Both she and her family have earned the truth.

"Please do your best for LaVena and her family." It's not so much to ask, is it?

Many thanks to Teresa and to everyone who has duplicated her efforts many times over.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Fourteen hundred

As of this writing, the number of signatories to the LaVena Johnson petition stands at just over fourteen hundred. Everyone who has written about this effort or shared this story with someone else, whether in person or via email or blog post, deserves very much to be named here and thanked individually. I ask forgiveness for not being able to do so.

Also: I can be heard talking about LaVena and the petition effort with Chuc Smith on the KDHX-FM program Vet Net next Monday (March 25 26) at the early hour of 5:30 a.m. Chuc is the president of the St. Louis chapter of Veterans For Peace and has worked to bring official attention and aid to the Johnson family's efforts to have the death of their daughter reinvestigated. The program is not archived, but may be heard over the Internet as it is broadcast. (RealPlayer format; click the "Listen Online" link at the top of the page at the show's webpage.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Petition status and other items

The current count of the petition to the two Armed Services Committees stands at a hair under twelve hundred signatures. The Johnson family again expresses its gratitude for everyone who has taken the time not only to sign on, but also to send word about LaVena Johnson to individual legislators, media outlets, and friends and family.

I'd like to add a special thanks to the many people who have spread word of the petition and this site by way of LiveJournal and MySpace blogs. This followed closely on the heels of the story posted at Crooks & Liars, and the surge of interest was gratifying.

I'll be talking about LaVena's story on an upcoming airing of Vet Net hosted by Chuc Smith at radio station KDHX. It's tentatively slated for March 25; the show runs from 5:30 am to 6 pm. I'll post final information soon.

More information related to this story and the petition will be posted here as soon as it becomes available. Again, thanks so much.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Guest Post: 1000 Signatures! It’s A Good Start, But…

As I write this, the count of signatures on the web petition to reopen
the PFC LaVena Johnson investigation has just reached 1000. That is a
very nice figure, especially since just three days ago it was barely
over 200. Truly, the word is starting to get around.

It is a great start. But it is not enough. I hope for many, many more
signatures. I know there are thousands upon thousands of folks across
the nation who will sign on just as soon as they hear the facts of this
case. So that is what has to happen. You are reading this now because
someone led you here. Perhaps it was a news story, a radio interview,
an email from a friend, or a posting on an internet site. No matter how
it happened, I am glad you are here and I hope you lead others here
too. I also deeply hope you sign the petition to demand that the Army
reopen the PFC LaVena Johnson investigation.

But I also hope that is not the last thing you do about this. I hope
you leave this web site after signing the petition and that you begin
immediately to write letters to your congressperson and your two
senators. I hope you then fax or email them to those elected officials.
I hope you follow up by phoning those offices or even by visiting them
in person. The message can be short and simple. Ask your representative
and senators to demand that the Army reopen it’s investigation of the
death of PFC LaVena Johnson. To get email addresses and phone numbers
go to http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov.

I hope everyone does this, but let me especially appeal to military
veterans. Do it for the family of our sister-in-arms, PFC LaVena
Johnson. Then, if you happen to belong to a veterans’ organization
(VFW, American Legion, AMVETS, Veterans For Peace, IVAW, DAV, VVAW,
etc.) spread the word among your members. Further, ask your
organization to issue a public statement. Her family deserves nothing
less than the truth. I am sure that as veterans, we would want nothing
less for ourselves and our loved ones.

As the prophet said, “Let justice roll down like waters….” Amos 5:24

Charles T. (Chuc) Smith
President The Don Connors Chapter of Veterans For Peace, St. Louis, MO

Radio report; petition signature count

For anyone who missed my Friday interview regarding Pfc. LaVena Johnson on The Sloan Ranger Show, the audio archive is available via this link.

Also: Charles Smith, president of the St. Louis chapter of Veterans for Peace, will talk about LaVena on Vet Net on St. Louis radio station KDHX-FM 88.1 tomorrow morning (March 12); the half-hour program starts at 5:30 am. For those not in the St. Louis metro, the program can be heard live online in RealPlayer format (click the "Listen Online" link at the top of the page) and call-ins are welcome . (My mistake; apologies! Call-ins would be welcome except that the program is previously recorded.)

As of this writing, the number of signatures on the LaVena Johnson petition to the two Armed Services Committees stands just seven names shy of one thousand.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thank you to The Sloan Ranger Show and Crooks & Liars

Many thanks to Lloyd Sloan, host of The Sloan Ranger Show, for having me on to discuss the case of LaVena Johnson and the related petition. Lloyd was an engaged host who facilitated a comfortable and - I trust - informative interview.

Thanks also to John Amato and Nicole Belle of Crooks & Liars for covering LaVena's story and linking to the petition news site.

In the space of a single evening - from 6:10 pm Central, the start of the radio interview, until about 10:30 at night - the LaVena Johnson petition gained as many signatures as it had in the previous nine days, bringing the count to 681 names.

The count as of this writing, this morning: 761 signatures. Thanks much to everyone who has participated thus far - and thanks for the comments left here. This site is checked several times a day, every day, and no comment goes unread.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Private wars

Yesterday, I spoke extensively by phone with John Johnson, father of Pfc. LaVena Johnson whose suspicious death in Iraq demands reinvestigation by the Army. The Johnson family has waged a private battle for nearly two years to have Army officials reexamine its ruling that LeVena died by her own hand, citing evidence that points to death by foul play.

Mr. Johnson said that up to this point, their struggle had been a solitary one. "We felt totally alone out there," he said. Knowledge that LaVena's story is becoming known to more people every day is heartening to the family. Everyone who has taken action on the Johnsons' behalf - whether by signing the petition to the two Armed Services Committees, writing emails to individual legislators or media about LaVena, or simply sharing the story with friends or family - should know that the family is aware of their efforts, and is grateful.

In the telephone conversation, Mr. Johnson described in some detail those aspects of documents and photographs received from the Army which lead the family to believe that a sexual assault lies at the heart of LaVena's death. It is a grim conclusion that doesn't bear thinking about - and it is a fact of theater service in Iraq for women soldiers in Iraq, according to Helen Benedict, author of yesterday's Salon article, "The Private War of Women Soldiers." Viewing the article requires watching a brief advertisement (click "Enter Salon" near the top of the page), but the piece is necessary reading:

I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few months, interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on the topic, and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection.

The female soldiers who were at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, for example, where U.S. troops go to demobilize, told me they were warned not to go out at night alone.

"They call Camp Arifjan 'generator city' because it's so loud with generators that even if a woman screams she can't be heard," said Abbie Pickett, 24, a specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company who spent 15 months in Iraq from 2004-05. Yet, she points out, this is a base, where soldiers are supposed to be safe.

Spc. Mickiela Montoya, 21, who was in Iraq with the National Guard in 2005, took to carrying a knife with her at all times. "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis," she told me. "It was for the guys on my own side."

Only an official reinvestigation of the death of Pfc. Johnson can reveal the facts behond her death, but the testimony of women soldiers in the Benedict article demonstrates that the possibility of a sexual assault in LaVena's case cannot and must not be dismissed.

A reminder: I will speak about the LaVena Johnson matter tomorrow (March 9) at 6:10 p.m. Central (was originally 6:15) on The Sloan Ranger Show with host Lloyd Sloan. The show can be heard via the Internet (or in the St. Louis area on WGNU), and call-ins are welcome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Friday (March 9) radio interview on LaVena Johnson

I will be interviewed on The Sloan Ranger Show with host Lloyd Sloan regarding Pfc. LaVena Johnson and the drive to have the Army reinvestigate her suspicious death in Iraq. The interview is scheduled for Friday, March 9; the interview is slated for 6:10 pm Central (was originally 6:15). The overall show runs from 5 pm to 7 pm. Locally, that's AM920, WGNU.

The show can be heard over the Web; you're invited not only to listen in (the “listen live” link is on the top right side of the masthead), but to call in with questions or comments. I'll answer as best I can.

Local callers: 314-454-0400
Toll free: 1-877-920-WGNU (9468)

Don't forget to sign the petition! Thanks much.

Item of interest

This weblog has been visited at least 14 times today by staffers at the House of Representatives.

This is a sign that someone in the House is at least familiar with the matter of LaVena Johnson.

It is to be hoped that this familiarity will be followed up with action on behalf of the Johnson family.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Thank you


Thank you for signing the petition


...and for helping the parents of LaVena Johnson to learn the facts about their daughter's death in Iraq. We hope you will please take a moment to share this petition with others.

Signing the petition is important in uncovering the truth, but it is equally important to directly contact the members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. These legislators rely on such contact in guiding their actions, and frankly need that guidance soon. Please don't wait for the petition! Check the roster of Senate and House ASC members; if you have a Senator or Representative on that list, please contact them regarding LaVena Johnson.

For additional ways that you can help raise public awareness of the Johnson's family's efforts to uncover the truth of what happened to their daughter, please read this list of action items. Each person and every effort is valuable.

Thank you again for your signature and your concern.

Contact info for members of the two Armed Services Committees

For those who want to help push the Army to reopen the investigation of Pfc. LaVena Johnson's death: I urge concerned readers to contact their own Senator or Representative who serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee or the House Armed Services Committee. These bodies are charged with legislative oversight of the armed forces; with enough will, their members can compel the Army to respond to LaVena's family. Help these legislators find that will by asking them to act in their capacity as members of these committees.

Also: Don't forget to mention that you are in fact a constituent of the legislator you're writing. The inclusion of your ZIP code in your message will help a lot.

(If you're uncertain of who your Representative is - there are several per state, after all - use the Write Your Representative form to identify your House rep, then check that name against the list below.)

Senate Armed Services Committee
Democrats
Carl Levin, Chairman (Michigan | numbers & addresses)
Claire McCaskill (Missouri | numbers & addresses)
Edward M. Kennedy (Massachusetts | numbers & addresses)
Robert C. Byrd (West Virginia | numbers & addresses)
Joseph I. Lieberman (Connecticut | numbers & addresses)
Jack Reed (Rhode Island | numbers & addresses)
Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii | numbers & addresses)
Bill Nelson (Florida | numbers & addresses)
E. Benjamin Nelson (Nebraska | numbers & addresses)
Evan Bayh (Indiana | numbers & addresses)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (New York | numbers & addresses)
Mark L. Pryor (Arkansas | numbers & addresses)
Jim Webb (Virginia | numbers & addresses)

Republicans
John McCain, Ranking Member (Arizona | numbers & addresses)
John W. Warner (Virginia | numbers & addresses)
James M. Inhofe (Oklahoma | numbers & addresses)
Jeff Sessions (Alabama | numbers & addresses)
Susan M. Collins (Maine | numbers & addresses)
Roger F. Wicker (Mississippi | numbers & addresses)
Saxby Chambliss (Georgia | numbers & addresses)
Lindsey O. Graham (South Carolina | numbers & addresses)
Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina | numbers & addresses)
John Cornyn (Texas | numbers & addresses)
John Thune (South Dakota | numbers & addresses)
Mel Martinez (Florida | numbers & addresses)

House Armed Services Committee
Democrats
Ike Skelton, Chairman (Missouri | numbers & addresses)
Gabrielle Giffords (Arizona | numbers & addresses)
Vic Snyder (Arkansas | numbers & addresses)
Susan A. Davis (California | numbers & addresses)
Loretta Sanchez (California | numbers & addresses)
Ellen O. Tauscher (California | numbers & addresses)
Mark Udall (Colorado | numbers & addresses)
Joe Courtney (Connecticut | numbers & addresses)
Kathy Castor (Florida | numbers & addresses)
Hank Johnson (Georgia | numbers & addresses)
Jim Marshall (Georgia | numbers & addresses)
Madeleine Bordallo (Guam | numbers & addresses)
Neil Abercrombie (Hawai'i | numbers & addresses)
Brad Ellsworth (Indiana | numbers & addresses)
David Loebsack (Iowa | numbers & addresses)
Nancy Boyda
(Kansas | numbers & addresses)
Elijah Cummings
(Maryland | numbers & addresses)
Niki Tsongas
(Massachusetts | numbers & addresses)
Gene Taylor (Mississippi | numbers & addresses)
Carol Shea-Porter (New Hampshire | numbers & addresses)
Robert E. Andrews (New Jersey | numbers & addresses)
Kirsten Gillibrand (New York | numbers & addresses)
Mike McIntyre (North Carolina | numbers & addresses)
Dan Boren (Oklahoma | numbers & addresses)
Robert A. Brady (Pennsylvania | numbers & addresses)
Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania | numbers & addresses)
Joe Sestak (Pennsylvania | numbers & addresses)
Kendrick Meek (Florida | numbers & addresses)
John M. Spratt, Jr. (South Carolina | numbers & addresses)
Jim Cooper (Tennessee | numbers & addresses)
Solomon P. Ortiz (Texas | numbers & addresses)
Silvestre Reyes (Texas | numbers & addresses)
Rick Larsen (Washington | numbers & addresses)
Adam Smith (Washington | numbers & addresses)

Republicans
Duncan Hunter, Ranking Member (California | numbers & addresses)
W. Todd Akin (Missouri | numbers & addresses)
Terry Everett (Alabama | numbers & addresses)
Mike Rogers (Alabama | numbers & addresses)
Trent Franks (Arizona | numbers & addresses)
Ken Calvert (California | numbers & addresses)
Buck McKeon (California | numbers & addresses)
Jeff Miller (Florida | numbers & addresses)
Phil Gingrey (Georgia | numbers & addresses)
Geoff Davis (Kentucky | numbers & addresses)
Roscoe G. Bartlett (Maryland | numbers & addresses)
Candice S. Miller (Michigan | numbers & addresses)
John Kline (Minnesota | numbers & addresses)
Frank A. LoBiondo (New Jersey | numbers & addresses)
Jim Saxton (New Jersey | numbers & addresses)
John M. McHugh (New York | numbers & addresses)
Robin Hayes (North Carolina | numbers & addresses)
Walter B. Jones (North Carolina | numbers & addresses)
Michael R. Turner (Ohio | numbers & addresses)
Tom Cole (Oklahoma | numbers & addresses)
Joe Wilson (South Carolina | numbers & addresses)
K. Michael Conaway (Texas | numbers & addresses)
Mac Thornberry (Texas | numbers & addresses)
Rob Bishop (Utah | numbers & addresses)
Jo Ann Davis (Virginia | numbers & addresses)
Thelma D. Drake (Virginia | numbers & addresses)
J. Randy Forbes (Virginia | numbers & addresses)
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington | numbers & addresses)


Action items re: LaVena Johnson

As the blogosphere awakens to the story of Pfc. LaVena Johnson's death, it's important to remember that this story is much larger than Blogville. Weblogs obviously have their importance in comminicating this story, but you don't have to be a blogger to be concerned over the anguish of LaVena's family and the inflexibility of the Army in refusing to reopen its investigation of her death. And you don't have to be a blogger to act on that concern.

Petition! The first step you can take is to sign this web-based petition to the Armed Services Committees, both Senate and House. The second step is to share the petition with others. (Contact info for individual committee members listed below.)

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:

KMOV-TV
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 that 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. Elsewhere on this blog is a list of direct contact links for each member of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. While the petition to each of those legislative bodies is a valuable first step, contacting individual members can help to bring home the message. Keep in mind that Congressmen really only want to hear from their own constituents, so make sure that the committee member you email really does represent you.

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.

The only thing I'd add right now is that even though feelings on this subject will run hot, it's important to be decent in your communications with people from whom you are asking help. After all, you're acting not in your name alone, but in someone else's.

Any suggestions that can be added here would be welcome.

Thanks very much for your attention, and your help.

The cover-up of a soldier's death?

Once upon a time lived 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," but initially added that it was not a suicide. 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 last night 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.

We have seen in other military deaths, most infamously that of Army Ranger and former professional football player Cpl. Pat Tillman, that the Army has engaged in an insulting game of deny and delay when it comes to uncovering embarrassing facts. Only when public and official attention is brought to bear on the matter - as happened, eventually and with great effort, with the case of Cpl. Tillman - do unpleasant truths come to light.

Astonishing as it seems, it takes that level of outrage to compel the Army to find the truth and tell it, to honor its own soldiers. No such groundswell has yet emerged in the case of LaVena; not enough voices have demanded that someone in the military, anyone, speak for her. At first glance, the contrast between the cases of Pat Tillman and LaVena Johnson seems vast, but at the core the situations are the same. In each case, the death of a young soldier in a dangerous place and time was not explained to the families they left behind, the families that gave them up so that they could serve us. An honest accounting of their passing is all the dead ask of us.

The mother of Pat Tillman put the matter in stark and honest terms:

"This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual," she said. "How are they treating others?"

In the case of Private First Class Johnson, we know the answer.