Shortly after midnight on July 19, 2005, a shift supervisor at a military cafeteria in Balad, Iraq, hears a loud bang that sounds like a car backfiring and races to the tent where it came from. He looks inside. Private First Class LaVena Johnson, 19, a vegan and an honor-roll student who once dreamed of going to film school in Los Angeles, is dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
She is lying on a bed of rocky soil, with gashes on both sides of her mouth; her hair is tangled in the dirt. An M16 is lying on the ground beside her. A Bible, a package of M&Ms, and a pack of Marlboro Lights are also near her body.
Today, more than three years later, LaVena's parents, Dr. John and Linda Johnson, are still looking for answers. Who killed their daughter?
Officials at the Army Criminal Investigation Command spent nine months on the case. They closed the investigation on April 28, 2006, ruling LaVena's death a suicide. Her file is "inches thick," says spokesman Chris Grey. "We stand by our investigation."
But LaVena's father says the Army is lying--he thinks his daughter was murdered. She showed no signs of wanting to kill herself during the two months she spent in Iraq; two days before she died, LaVena told her father she was coming home in November to get the house ready for Christmas. "Don't start decorating without me," she said.
Johnson isn't the only one questioning the suicide ruling. Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat who has written about LaVena for the political website TruthOut, is among hundreds of people who have signed a petition (lavenajohnson.com) demanding that the Army reopen the investigation. "They need to get to the bottom of whether she was a suicide or murder victim," Wright says. Meanwhile, at a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in April 2007, Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. (D--MO) said the Johnson family has been "met by a wall of disrespect, evasion, and a failure to provide them with the answers that the parents of any fallen soldier deserve." Now, as a result of pressure from Congressman Clay and the Johnson family, officials "are looking into the case," according to a House Armed Services Committee spokeswoman, to determine if they should pursue a formal investigation of the matter.
So far, an estimated 740 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have perished in "noncombat" incidents, such as an accident, a suicide, an act of violence brought by another soldier, or so-called friendly fire, in which a soldier is mistakenly killed by coalition forces. In many cases, the circumstances remain frustratingly murky. Consider: One recent study of friendly-fire deaths found that the military had failed to promptly notify the family of the cause of death in all but four of the 91 cases studied. As a result, family members like John Johnson resort to doing their own detective work, filing requests to obtain government documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and then waiting months--sometimes years--for the information to show up. Johnson received his documents more than 10 months after requesting them--and only after he enlisted Congressman Clay's help. Johnson even had his daughter's body exhumed so he could arrange an independent autopsy.
Why should it be this hard? Is it because a noncombat death is the ultimate public-relations nightmare in an already unpopular war? The blatant cover-up of the friendly-fire death of former football star Pat Tillman has given every military family ample reason to be suspicious. No wonder Lavena's loved ones want to know more.