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Collateral Damage

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The moment John H. Johnson, a psychologist and motivational speaker, saw his 19-year-old daughter’s body in the funeral home, he knew something was very wrong. According to the Johnsons, an Army medical examiner told the family that on July 19, 2005, Private First Class LaVena Johnson, stationed near Balad, Iraq, had stuck an M-16 rifle in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Her father saw something different: “She had a bullet entrance wound in the left side of her head,” he recalls, “but LaVena was right-handed.” The young soldier also looked as if she had been badly beaten. But what was especially telling for John Johnson was the fact that no one could find the bullet that had killed his child.

The Army is conducting a routine investigation but will not release any details relating to the death.

LaVena, an aspiring movie producer and one of ten Black women to have died in Iraq since the war started, hadn’t seemed upset when she spoke with her mother, Linda Johnson, by phone just two days before she died. Excited about coming home to Florissant, Missouri, for Christmas, she talked of going shopping and decorating the family tree. “She was her usual bubbly self,” her mother remembers. “This wasn’t someone thinking of killing herself.”

Johnson remains convinced that there is more to his daughter’s death than the Army has so far let on. He says, “I think that perhaps LaVena walked up on something, or somebody tried to hurt her, and she fought them.” Now her family members vow to do right by their fallen soldier by clearing her name.

Credit: Courtesy of Family
The death of soldier LaVena Johnson shown here in 2004, is still a mystery.

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