Wednesday, November 10th, the day before Veteran's Day--a new documentary on veterans, made its national debut in St. Louis. Veterans For Peace, a group pledging to expose..."THE TRUE COST OF WAR," partnered with the film maker and the family of deceased Army Private Lavena Lynn Johnson to make this important work. The film deals with the gruesome reality of military service, focusing on the story of a young veteran in her teens, believed to be brutally raped and murdered by other soldiers or mercenaries, and the culture of sexism, lies and coverup which pervades the military. The story is horrific yet compelling, and the title sadly appropriate, namely--The Silent Truth.
To a standing room only crowd, the audience reaction fluctuated wildly between gasps of horror, in terms of the magnitude of this crime, and applause for this brave and loving family. LaVena's mother could not bear to relive this nightmare by watching the film, and sat out the duration of the viewing with family members and friends. The film was followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Johnson, the film's director Joan Brooker Marks, and consultant Colonel Ann Wright. This debut marks the beginning of a limited engagement national tour. The film was served to witness the quest for justice, for LaVena and far too many others like her.
LaVena Johnson didn't have to enlist in the U.S. Army. Her parents had the ability to pay for her college education, as well as that of her four siblings. So---when LaVena announced to her family her plans to begin an army stint immediately following high school graduation--a pall of doubt fell over the entire family. LaVena's father, Dr. John Johnson was a military psychologist for his entire career, so the family was familiar with military issues. To this day Dr. Johnson is convinced that LaVena had been indoctrinated by recruiters visiting her high school, Hazelwood Central--a mandate introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act. ( This aspect of her story will be covered in the second part of this series.)
The Army called it suicide...
LaVena left for basic training and stationing in Iraq, and came home some eight weeks later in July of 2005, days before her 20th birthday--in a body bag. She was the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq.
The film begins with Dr. Johnson describing events the day they were notified of LaVena's death. Beginning with that dreaded knock on the door, Dr. Johnson saw the Army Sergeant and another soldier (believed to be an official public relations officer), on his doorstep. He knew the reason for the visit; LaVena was dead. After the initial cursory condolences from the military men; Dr. Johnson was asked to give permission for a closed casket funeral and to sign off on the decision. He refused. Dr. Johnson wanted to know the cause of her death, in fact he demanded to know. The military officials said the cause of death was suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot to her head.
Foul play suspected....
It was at this point that Dr. Johnson suspected foul play. LaVena had shown no signs of depression or suicidal ideation. In fact, she was looking forward to seeing the family on Christmas leave. Furthermore, LaVena was in charge of a communications facility and was able to phone and email home on a daily basis just to allay her family's fears. (source: http://blogs.alternet.org/penucquem/2010/10/26/covered-up-more-than-13-of-american-wo...)
Dr. Johnson then asked if a rape kit and autopsy had been conducted. Again, he was told no. So, Dr. Johnson demanded an open casket funeral and access to his daughter's remains for the purpose of conducting an autopsy.
Unexplained mutilation contradicting Army's story...
What the family and friends discovered was gruesome beyond belief. LaVena's remains had been so mutilated that she was unrecognizable to family. There was no hint of the previously bubbly and pretty teen. I had seen this type of mutilation in a photo only once before--on the laid out remains of--Emmett Till.
Freedom Of Information Act and A Mystery CD of Photographic Evidence
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Dr. Johnson and family friends accidentally found a Xerox picture of a CD containing photos of the crime scene. The M-16 that the army alleges LaVena shot herself with was found PERFECTLY PARALLEL TO HER BODY, inside a burning tent belonging to a KBR contractor. The mystery CD, leaked to the family-- was to be the 'smoking gun' in this investigation.
There were acid burns on her inner thighs, and her genital area suffered massive bruising and lacerations. Additionally, a corrosive material had been poured into her vaginal region, presumably to destroy DNA evidence of rape. One of her eyes was hanging from the socket, her nose broken, bullet hole in her head, and several teeth were knocked backwards. The photos also revealed additional massive bruises, scratch marks and teeth imprints on her upper body. Her back and her right hand had been burned from what is thought to be a flammable liquid poured over parts of her body and lighted.
Gloves had been glued to her hands...
Military gloves had been GLUED TO HER HANDS, and when they were removed, Dr. Johnson found evidence of additional acid burns to her dominant hand--THE ONE SHE WOULD HAVE USED TO PULL THE TRIGGER, and he quickly realized the acid was intended to destroy any other DNA evidence. Not only was her body found fully clothed inside a KBR contractor's burning tent; there was a trail of blood found tracking from outside the tent to the inside. Dr. Johnson concluded that LaVena had been assaulted, mutilated, murdered and dressed after the attack, with the fire designed to burn away any evidence.
In addition to the photos on the mystery CD, a KBR contractor (Kellogg, Brown & Root) claimed to have heard a gunshot, went to investigate and found a KBR company tent on fire. This witness looked inside and found LaVena's body, though official Army investigation documentation omitted any mention of a fire or the fact that LaVena's remains had been pulled from the fire.
The witness statement taken on July 19th, 2005, states: "The witness (name redacted)...found the victim under the bench and verified there were no signs of life...related he saw the M16 lying across the victim's body...he didn't know what setting the weapon was on...he related everything was smoking including parts of the body. He called for an ambulance and secured the scene."
US Army Reserve Colonel, Ann Wright, entered the picture to help this family. Little did she know--she would be a major commentator in this film alongside Dr. Johnson. No stranger to the military, Wright was the prominent officer who resigned from the US State Department in 2003 voicing her public opposition to the Iraq War. She co-authored a landmark work among anti-war groups called "Dissent : Voices of Conscience."
One In Three Women Joining the US Military Will Be Sexually Assaulted...
Wright speaks throughout the film, with the calm warmth of a caring professor, yet you realize behind this calm is a steely quality ready, willing and able to go to--hell and back. According to statistics released by the Department of Defense itself--ONE IN THREE WOMEN WHO JOIN THE US MILITARY WILL BE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED OR RAPED BY MEN IN THE MILITARY. Wright explained in an article at Truthout, that this statistic should be posted as a warning label situated ..."above the doors of the military recruiting stations, as that is where assaults on women in the military begin--before they are even recruited."
Furthermore, Wright explains in the movie and the article that there is a pervasive pattern of "noncombat related deaths" following instances of rape. Frequently, military women first raped and later found dead of non-combat causes are listed as suicides by the same military these women served. (Source: http://www.truth-out.org/article/ann-wright-army-cover-up-rape-and-murder-1?print)
To add further to the family's pain-- military officials kept insisting these mortal wounds were the result of suicide, secondary to a pattern of mental illness. Ironically, the Army investigators first considered LaVena's death to be a homicide--and recorded that in their paperwork, but within a short window of opportunity were suddenly ordered to cease their investigation and reclassify her death as a suicide. This order had to have come from officers 'higher up on the military food chain,' according to Wright.
Not only had the military covered up a crime--evidence of foul play had been tampered with or destroyed. Dr. Johnson was going to war--against the Pentagon. The parents headed to congressional hearings...in 2008. Assisted by their local US Congressman, William Lacy Clay (D) Mo.--the Johnsons were cautiously hopeful that they would finally get at the truth. Congressman Clay was sucessful in obtaining some investigative information, but not enough to force the truth from top Pentagon brass. Alongside the Tillman family--the Johnson's watched in disgust as Pentagon members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were ..."unable to recall" certain events or memos regarding these suspicious deaths.
Not only did these military leaders fail to recall certain events--the congressional committee members sat there helpless to obtain any legitimate testimony. Rumsfeld reminded me of the nasty kid claiming ...'the dog ate his homework.' So, while Congressman Clay gave a verbal spanking to Pentagon leaders--other Republican members of this committee were fawning over these Generals, practically apologizing for the inconvenience of it all.
Failure to Use 'Inherent Contempt' Powers...
What I find disturbing is the failure of all these congressmen to implement a power they have retained since the earliest days of the republic--namely the 'inherent contempt of congress' charge. In theory, if any official subpenoed to testify and provide information to congress refuses to cooperate, or even claims to be 'unable to recall'----any member of congress can order the Sergeant at Arms to place that person in custody--definitely until they are ....'able to recall.' The fact that no member of congress has been willing to use this tool to force the truth; speaks to a political climate rapidly criminalizing not only dissent--but even the right to question. Ironically, I recall congressional hearings several years ago when congressmen were vigorously interrogating--sports figures over steroid use. Somehow I was hoping that Lavena's murder would rank as important as cheating to win sporting events.
What happened to LaVena Lynn Johnson and so many others speaks to a Pentagon culture which more closely resembles a rogue government--than a legitimate branch serving under civilian control. It is highly telling that this family, along with the Tillman family each had to have a documentary film made JUST TO ALERT THE PUBLIC TO THE TRUTH OF PENTAGON COVER-UPS.
I urge everyone to view this important documentary--before the local military recruiter mandated under No Child Left Behind--'friends' their child at school. God forbid, they could wind up coming home in a body bag--like LaVena.
Note: The next part of this series will deal with the unethical practices of military recruiters 'assisting' high schools complements of "No Child Left Behind."