The tragic story of LaVena Johnson

More disturbing evidence that women in the military sometimes face more danger from their fellow soldiers than from their enemies.


Kate Harding
June 27, 2008 10:06PM (UTC)

Salon has published quite a bit about how American women in the military sometimes face more danger from their fellow soldiers than from their enemies, but the stories never seem to stop. And all too often, they go largely ignored by the media, as with the case of Pfc. LaVena Johnson.

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.

Advertisement:

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.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

MORE FROM Kate Harding


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Gender Love And Sex U.s. Military

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •