In high school, LaVena Johnson was an honor student, a violinist, and a volunteer in her community. After graduating, she decided to put off college and enlist in the army, where she was assigned to be the weapons supply manager of the 129th Corps Support Battalion and deployed to Iraq. On July 19, 2005, just eight weeks after her arrival in Iraq, Private LaVena Johnson was killed. She was eight days away from her 20th birthday.
The Army initially told LaVena’s parents that she had “died of self-inflicted, non-combat injuries.” In other words, her death was accidental. However, after further investigation, the Army decided her death was a suicide. But her parents were not convinced. First off, her company commander described her as happy and emotionally and physically healthy. A phone conversation with LaVena the day before she was killed had given her mother, Linda Johnson, no inkling that she was unhappy, let alone suicidal. LaVena’s father, Dr. John Johnson, was even more troubled by the evidence of physical trauma to his daughter’s body, which he got from Army records and autopsy reports. LaVena’s face was battered; her nose was broken; she had two loose teeth; her lip was so badly cut it had to be sewn back together; her vagina had been burned with lye; and there was evidence that somebody had attempted to set her body on fire. None of this physical trauma was mentioned in the autopsy report.
LaVena’s parents cited other problems with the official version of their daughter’s death. For example, the bullet wound that was ruled as the cause of her death was on the left side of her head, even though LaVena was right-handed. The Army also reported that the wound was caused by a shot from her M-16 rifle, but her parents say it’s unlikely that Lavena, who was 5’1″ tall, could have shot herself with a 40-inch rifle. And, based on gunpowder residue tests conducted by a military laboratory, it is doubtful if LaVena even handled the weapon. Finally, according to photos obtained by Dr. Johnson of the crime scene, there was a trail of blood leading away from the contractor’s tent in which LaVena’s body was discovered, and there was a cot or stretcher between her body and the M-16 rifle that reportedly caused her death.
The Johnsons believe their daughter was raped and then murdered in an attempt to cover up the rape. Whoever broke LaVena’s nose, busted her lip, shot her in the head, poured lye into her vagina, and tried to set her body on fire is still on the loose. The Johnsons have been trying to reopen the investigation into their daughter’s death and, after some initial obstacles, there’s finally some movement in their case. They’ve received help from veterans, journalists, and even a former diplomat. KMOV, a local Missouri TV station was the first major media outlet to cover the story. Since then, the Johnsons have also spoken to and received support from some Congressional representatives.
What makes this already horrible case even worse is that LaVena’s story does not appear to be a unique or isolated incident. Moue Magazine quotes a New Zealand Herald article stating that women soldiers in Iraq are often the victims of sexual violence, and Anne Wright—who’s also supporting the Johnson family—reports that “one in three women who join the US military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military.”