I had written my Senators and my Congress member. I was told this was a matter for the Armed Services Committee. I called them and was told it was a matter for the Department of Defense. I have requested that the people I spoke with make an inquiry on LaVena’s behalf. I have no idea whether they will do anything, but I am following through on my conversations with them and writing the Secretary of Defense. I will also send this letter with an explanatory cover to Senators Levin and McCain, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, respectively.
Please join in the effort to secure action on LaVena’s behalf. The lives you save could be your daughters.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
U. S. Department of Defense
1400 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1400
Dear Mr. Secretary:
On July 19, 2005, eight days before her 20th birthday, U S Army Private LaVena Lynn Johnson died in Iraq. Her picture appears below:
Private Johnson was, as you can see, an attractive young woman. At the time of her death, LaVena had been in the Army for ten months and she had been deployed to Iraq for a few weeks. LaVena was third generation Army, and although her mother hoped the violin-playing, honor student would go to college right after high school; her father was not surprised when she enlisted. On July 17, 2005, LaVena had spoken with her mother and seemed to be happily anticipating her Christmas homecoming. LaVena reportedly told her mother: “Don’t decorate the tree without me.”
Although LaVena had been noted for her consistently positive attitude, the military claimed her spirits dropped dramatically when she received a “Dear Joan Letter” from her boyfriend of two months via email on July 18, 2005. The military claims LaVena was in such despair after receiving this email that she committed suicide. However, her company commander, James Woods, stated LaVena was happy in her assignment and proud to be in the Army. He further stated that LaVena was always smiling and that he had observed no change in her behavior prior to her death.
The initial autopsy report revealed no serious injuries. When her body was exhumed and a second autopsy conducted, however, it was found that LaVena had been punched in the face hard enough to blacken her eyes, break her nose, and knock her front teeth loose. Her genitals had been mutilated and an acidic solution had been used as a douche. LaVena had been drenched in a flammable liquid and set on fire. While aflame she had been shot in the head and dragged into a KBR tent. The tent was ignited to cover up the brutality inflicted upon her. A trail of blood traced her path to the tent and two pools of blood were found near her corpse. Finally, the gunshot wound did not seem to be that made by an M-16, but rather by a pistol.
These injuries and wounds, which I have no reason to suspect are not accurately described, are completely incompatible with suicide. They are, however, perfectly consistent with rape and murder. Based on all the information I can find after diligent research, I suspect LaVena was a victim of sexually motivated violence in the military. Whether this was perpetrated by contractors or other soldiers I do not know. I do know, however, that violence against women is a scourge particularly in combat areas and therefore, it is not implausible that LaVena, young and lovely as she was, fell prey to a sexual predator or predators.
As a Vietnam War veteran, it pains me to think that a young person serving her country could have fallen victim to the fate that seems to have stolen LaVena’s life in the bloom of youth. You have no reason, save those arising from honor, to heed the following requests: First, appoint people you trust implicitly to review LaVena’s case file. Second, contact her parents: Dr. John Johnson and Linda Johnson of St. Louis, MO, and let them know that somebody in authority is looking after their daughter. Third, clear the way and open the doors for your designees so that they can carefully and thoroughly investigate this seemingly gross miscarriage of justice. Fourth, if this careful and thorough investigation reveals that LaVena was victimized confirm this to the Johnson family. Finally, do what you can to bring the predators to justice.
If you do nothing on this, you will be no worse than many others, but you will also be no better. I respectfully suggest that you should aspire to be better. Justice, for LaVena and her family, has been delayed for nearly seven years. Nothing can bring her back, but if we refuse to allow justice to be permanently denied, we may be able to bring some measure of closure and solace to her loved ones. We may be able to start a trend that prevents this fate from befalling other young women who have the patriotism to serve in our armed forces. We may be able to redeem the trust LaVena and all who have sworn to serve placed in the United States of America.
R. Lawrence Conley
1912 Arden Drive
Allison Park, PA 15101-2804
Note: LaVena was posthumously promoted to Private First-Class.