The Dues You Have to Pay.

What really happened to John Johnsons daughter, LaVena?

What really happened to John Johnson's daughter, LaVena?

A editor who knew me well once told me I was a good writer, but when I was passionate I was capable of being a great writer.

Maybe I need more passion in my life.

I am not heroic.   I don’t think I’m particularly brave.   However,  I do  have a finely tuned sense of injustice and it was kicked into high gear last August when I learned about the story of LaVena Johnson and the strange,  sordid way she died in Iraq.

This is what arouses my passions.   Young women aren’t supposed to die violent, ugly deaths under strange circumstances and nobody but the family and a handful of supporters give a damn.

Writing about LaVena Johnson on my blog wasn’t enough.  I wanted to tell her story and that of her family to a wider audience.   I pitched the story to the editor of The Root, a publication I’d written for previously.    The editor said she was interested  and urged me to pursue the story.

Which is exactly what I did.   I contacted and conducted interviews with Colonel Ann Wright, a retired officer who has written extensively and authoritatively about sexual assault and violence against women in the military.   I spoke with Philip Barron, a librarian in St. Louis who created the LaVena Johnson website that is part memorial and part clearinghouse for news and information about LaVena’s life and death.

I tracked down the former producer at CBS News who had worked on a story about LaVena, but ended up changing his  mind.   Most importantly, I spoke with LaVena’s father, John Johnson.   Mr. Johnson was very gracious and forthcoming.  He has no doubt that his daughter was a victim of foul play despite the insistence of the Army that she committed suicide.

I have notes.   I have tapes.    I have more than enough to put together a thorough and informative story.

For some reason I’ve been frozen in place.   The temptation is to chalk it up to a particularly bad, and inopportune  bout of “writer’s block.”    But that’s not it.   I know when I’m blocked.   This is different.

After several false starts and a lot of time spent staring blankly at a computer that is staring blankly back at me,  I had to own up to why I couldn’t push through to finish the story.

I was depressed.   Depressed like I’ve been only a  few times in my life.    And more than just depressed, I was intimidated.

Like LaVena I enlisted in the military.   Unlike her, I did not serve during wartime.   Viet Nam was winding down when I joined the Air Force.    But even a soldier that never hears a weapon fired in anger is aware that at any time  they  may be called upon to go off to fight and possibly die.   It’s one of the unfortunate things about joining a all-volunteer military.

I want to do right by the Johnson family.   I want this story not just to be told, but for it to actually matter.   I’ve written thousands of stories over the 16 years I’ve been a journalist.   I can count on both hands how many of them I thought really meant something.    That doesn’t mean most of what I’ve written is garbage.   I know when I put my heart and soul and talent into it, I can write and actually write well.

But I’m trying to not just tell a story about LaVena Johnson.   I’m trying to find some small measure of justice for her as well, and that is a objective that is as elusive as it is ambitious.

Writing, it is said, comes harder to a writer than anyone else.   That’s true.   Writers have to be a bit arrogant to suggest the world needs changing and cocky enough to say we’re the ones best qualified to do it.   We want our words to not just  matter;  We want our words to mean something.   We’d like to tell ourselves that the power of words can change things, right wrongs, speak truth and make a difference.   All too often, none of that happens, but it’s always an objective worth striving for.

Maybe the power of words can’t change the world, but sometimes it can give it a little push in the right direction.

I have a promise to keep.   I may not get justice for LaVena.   Justice is an abstract concept and one that may one where my ambitions have to concede to the cold reality that justice is something beyond my ability to dispense.   Reality, coupled with humility,  compel me to just write as strong and effective a story as I can and let whatever happens, happen.    It’s not my call.

I’m out of my fog or funk now.   Maybe it was a crisis of confidence or something.   Maybe I was relying on my finely attuned sense of outrage and passion to carry me through the difficult task of compiling the facts into a coherent narration and putting it together to create a compelling article.

Outrage  only takes you so far.   Passion fades.   Neither one is a replacement for the damn hard work involved in getting a story right and telling it straight.     When the heat passes, cool logic is necessary to put the words together and get the job done.

This is not how I thought this story would go when I took it upon myself to tell it.   I wanted to tell LaVena’s story so much I found myself unable to tell it at all.

I think I can do this the right way now.    I had to get lost for a while there, but I’m finding my way back.

The Very Strange Death of LaVena Johnson.

was it suicide or murder?

LaVena Johnson: was it suicide or murder?

There is never a shortage of missing White women and children for the media to fixate upon.  Crap television shows such as the ones hosted by Greta vanSustren and the repellent Nancy Grace turned the case of Natalie Holloway into a cause celebre.

It helps when the victim is young, pretty and White.

LaVena Johnson was young and pretty, but unfortunately, since she wasn’t White, the mainstream news media has paid almost no attention to her death under what can be described as “unusual” circumstances.

Unusual in what way?

Recently, Kate Harding on Salon related the mysterious circumstances of Private Johnson’s death.

In July 2005, 19-year-old Johnson became the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq. She was found with a broken nose, black eye and loose teeth, acid burns on her genitals, presumably to eliminate DNA evidence of rape, a trail of blood leading away from her tent and a bullet hole in her head. Unbelievably, that’s not the most horrifying part of the story. Here’s what is: Army investigators ruled her death a suicide.

Beyond the obvious evidence of abuse, there was no sign of depression or suicidal ideation in Johnson’s psychological profile. The bullet wound was in the wrong place for her to have shot herself with her dominant hand, and the exit wound was the wrong size to have come from her own M-16, as the Army suggested it did. The blatant lie the military has tried to sell Johnson’s family is on a par with the cover-up surrounding football star Pat Tillman’s 2004 death in a friendly fire incident. Unlike Tillman’s widely reported story, however, outside the blogosphere — where writers like Philip Barron have worked tirelessly to keep Johnson’s name in the spotlight — the LaVena Johnson case has rarely been noted. And sadly, it is far from unique. In a story in the New Zealand Herald on Wednesday, Tracey Barnett writes, “[LaVena’s father] John Johnson has discovered far more stories that have matched his daughter’s than he ever wanted to know. Ten other families of ‘suicide’ female soldiers have contacted him. The common thread among them — rape.”

Regarding the runaround her family got from the military, Pat Tillman’s mother said to the New York Times in 2006, “”This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual. How are they treating others?” LaVena Johnson’s story is just one tragic answer to that question.

It’s one thing when soldiers risk their lives to defend our country.  It’s another thing entirely when they become possible victims of assault, rape, and murder and the military turns a blind eye.

The Army says Johnson committed suicide.  Seems to me there are less strange ways to kill yourself than the method she supposedly chose.  There needs to be a new investigation into Johnson’s death. has begun a petition drive addressed to U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to request they hold an inquiry

Instead of talking about who’s more of a celebrity, McCain or Obama, Paris Hilton’s presidential aspirations, or if John Edwards is a baby daddy and all the other bullshit we dwell upon in our endless search for brain-dead entertainment, every American regardless of their position on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan should not only be concerned, we should be outraged over how our female soldiers are being mistreated.

In their desire to protect our lives, what are we doing to protect theirs?

To sign the petition:

For more information about the Johnson case: