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Man wants Army to reopen investigation into daughter's death in Iraq

Tuesday, June 3, 2008 | 8:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Army Pfc. LaVena Lynn Johnson is seen in a November 2004 photo taken at basic training. Johnson was found dead July 19, 2005, in a small contractor's tent in Balad, Iraq. Her death was ruled a suicide but her father, John Johnson, wants Congress to force the Army to reopen its investigation into her death.

ST. LOUIS — The father of the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq wants Congress to force the Army to reopen its investigation into her death.

John Johnson, father of LaVena Johnson, said Tuesday that he met in April with Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, as well as others.

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The Johnsons and their supporters collected signatures for petitions asking the House and Senate Armed Services committees to direct the Army to revisit the investigation of Johnson’s death.

“I could let it go, but then, someone will get away with murder,” John Johnson of Florissant told reporters Tuesday.

Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson was found dead July 19, 2005, in a small contractor’s tent in Balad, Iraq, after only eight weeks in the country. Army investigators and coroners ruled she had shot herself in the mouth with an M-16 rifle.

Johnson contends his daughter was attacked, raped and her body dumped in the tent, where a fire was started in hopes of destroying her remains.

The House Armed Services Committee is looking into the case, but has not decided whether to hold a formal investigation, said spokeswoman Lara Battles.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Armed Services Committee said it was unaware of the case.

LaVena Johnson died days shy of her 20th birthday. She graduated from Hazelwood Central High School in 2004, where she was an honor student, played the violin, and developed a social conscience.

Her family has described her as upbeat and not suicidal.

Christopher Grey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command in Fort Belvoir, Va., said the Army stands by the command’s finding that Johnson’s gunshot was self-inflicted.

“We conducted a very thorough investigation that’s documented in the case file,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a very unfortunate, tragic case, and I completely understand the feelings of the grieving family.”

He said the command “stands ready to reopen any investigation” if someone presents new, credible evidence.

Johnson said he presented Skelton and others the names of nine other military women who were raped or murdered while in the service. He said he became aware of their stories as he investigated his daughter’s.

He said there’s a pattern, and “whoever is behind this must have significant rank or prestige.”

He said color photographs, documents and autopsy reports he’s obtained from Army investigators indicate his daughter was scratched, bruised and burned, and that her genital area showed evidence of lye “to destroy DNA evidence.”

An autopsy performed at Dover Air Force Base concluded that she died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The St. Louis medical examiner reached the same conclusion after Johnson had his daughter’s body exhumed for a second autopsy.

The Pentagon reported in March that men and women in uniform reported 2,688 sexual assaults last year. That compares to 2,947 reported the year before and 2,400 in 2005.

Michael McPhearson, executive director of the national Veterans for Peace, based in St. Louis, said Tuesday there’s an “epidemic of sexual abuse” in the military.

“In order to ensure our wives, daughters and aunts are safe, men have to hold men accountable for this behavior,” said McPhearson, who served in the first Gulf War.

“Women have to be advocates for themselves, but men have to say we can’t allow this.”


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