Sexual Violence Against Women in the US Military: The Search for Truth and Justice

An investigation into the alleged suicide of US Army Private Lavena Johnson points to a larger story of sexual violence against women in the military.

Do you know the story of US Army Private Lavena Johnson and her alleged suicide? If you get most of your news from the mainstream media, probably not, considering the mainstream media has mysteriously cowered from her story of how a loving and happy 19-year-old suddenly killed herself in 2005 while serving in Iraq.

But now that the Cold Case Investigations Research Institute of Philadelphia has agreed to tackle the case, perhaps the story of Lavena and the mysterious deaths of other US female soldiers on bases in Afghanistan and Iraq will finally become recognized by a much larger audience.

Each year the Cold Case Investigations Research Institute (CCIRI) takes on a high-profile cold case. Past investigations have looked into the murders of Tu Pac and Chandra Levy, for instance.

So far, CCIRI has had their own ballistic and forensic experts and a psychologist who is an expert on suicides, take a good look at the military’s investigative file and autopsy photos. All have serious doubts Lavena took her own life.

“There’s no question the military’s [investigation and conclusion of suicide] has problems,” says Sheryl McCollum, director of CCIRI. “If there are any signs of murder, you can’t automatically call it a suicide.”

But while the CCIRI has found the courage to take on this potential military cover-up, major media such as CBS News’s 60 Minutes and ABC News have attempted to report on Lavena’s death, but backed away from airing the story, even though both CBS and ABC spent thousands of dollars on Lavena, sending multiple teams to the home of the Johnsons. 60 Minutes also paid to have Lavena’s body disinterred for a second autopsy, this according to Lavena’s father, Dr. John Johnson of St. Louis.

“No one will touch Lavena’s story with a ten-foot pole,” says Dr. Johnson about the mainstream and corporate media.

He believes the Pentagon has a choking grip on a media industry that has become so financially injured, if 60 minutes or ABC News were to air stories such as Lavena’s, the military would pull advertising from those channels, he says.

“The military sure as heck don’t want to admit black female soldiers are being raped and murdered because they’re having a hard time recruiting and retaining black females,” he told Toward Freedom. “Major media stories of brutally raped black female soldiers would devastate recruiting.”

Indeed, the Pentagon has tried to intimidate reporters and editors working on stories about Lavena. Essence magazine, for example, was threatened to have their military ad dollars pulled if they ran a story on Lavena. The magazine eventually caved to the Pentagon running a watered-down story as the editors reportedly said their survival depended on military advertising, which in Essence’s case, is seeking young black women recruits, such as Lavena.

Nonetheless, Lavena’s family continues their effort to raise awareness about a daughter who loved serving her country and lived for making a difference to help others.

The US military was her destiny, says her father; she’s third generation Army. So it was no surprise to her family when the former violin-playing honor student was ordered to Iraq in 2005.

Though she always maintained a positive attitude, on July 18th, 2005, Lavena’s spirit took a tremendous turn for the worse, claims the military. On that afternoon, says the military, her brand new boyfriend of two months broke up with her via email from his home in Kentucky.

Scorned, she printed out the e-mails and retreated to her barracks at Joint Base Balad, this according to the military. Later that night she changed out of her camos and put on a jogging suit. She took the break-up e-mails and put them in a pocket, slung her M-16 over her shoulder as most soldiers did on this base and headed out to buy snacks at a military store – with a male friend the military refuses to name.

Once at the store, Lavena used her debit card to buy a six-pack of soda and M&Ms. The pair returned to the barracks, claims the military, but sometime after this Lavena left one more time, making her way to an empty tent owned by the contractor Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), formally a subsidiary of Haliburton.

Just 24 hours before this fateful night, says her mother, Lavena called her with a global phone. Her daughter sounded happy, says the mother, as they made plans for her homecoming at Christmas and Lavena told her, “Don’t decorate the tree without me.”

But within the KBR tent, just one day after making plans for Christmas, Lavena was distraught beyond any hope after the breakup with her boyfriend – this according to the military. So Lavena found a can of aerosol, lit the break-up e-mails on fire, and lit the tent on fire. The military says Lavena then took her M16 and pulled the trigger. The happy soul and young life of Private Johnson was gone; a suicide.

This was the military’s official version of Private Johnson’s “non-combat related death”.  This official version of what was deemed a suicide was based on an investigation by the US Army’s investigative arm, the US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID).

Soon after CID’s conclusion, the Armed Services Committees in the Senate signed-off. Case closed.

The story of Private Lavena Johnson, however, is far from over, as attested by the CCIRI’s decision to take on her case. What’s more, Lavena’s father says he has one simple reason to keep the pressure on the military: The evidence showing his daughter didn’t take her own life, but instead was murdered and possibly raped, is too great to take lying down, and the story of her being a jilted girlfriend simply a cover.

According to military documents, Lavena’s commanding officer, James Woods, told investigators that before her suicide, she was always smiling and that he did not see any changes in her behavior.

Two ballistics experts, Donald Marion and Cyril Wecht, told the family that Lavena’s wounds were not consistent with an M16 and the alleged exit wound from the top of her head looks more like a wound caused by a 9 mm pistol.

The US military’s autopsy of Lavena had revealed a busted lip, broken teeth, scratch marks on her neck, but no serious injuries. Yet after she was raised from the grave for a second autopsy, new X-rays would reveal a broken neck. Even stranger, the second autopsy also showed the military had removed part of Lavena’s tongue, vagina and anus, and didn’t tell the Johnsons, or document this in the first autopsy.

As implausible and twisted as it sounds, the taking of body parts, in some cases the heart or brain or both, has occurred to other bodies of female soldiers whose death’s were ruled  “non-combat related”.

Dr. Johnson believes the military took Lavena’s body parts so to hide what truly happened to his daughter: Military Sexual Trauma or MST.

“My daughter wanted to serve her country, and they’re going to insult her like this?” asked Dr. Johnson to this reporter. “The Army had the absolute chutzpah to say she killed herself. We believe she was raped and murdered by a contractor. If they had a daughter [that died mysteriously in a war zone] they would be acting the same way, there’s no doubt. And I’m not resting until something is done.”

Coincidentally, rape by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be an isolated thing committed by a rare predator. In July of 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones, then 20 and working in Iraq, alleged she was gang-raped and beaten by fellow KBR employees and locked in a shipping container by managers after she sought out law enforcement. Jones and her lawyers, who lost a federal civil suit against KBR in July, said nearly 40 other female KBR employees who worked in Afghanistan and Iraq told them stories of rape, beatings and sexual harassment.

Besides a cold shoulder from the military, the Johnsons say Congress has hardly lifted a finger to help, either. A team of Congressional staffers did investigate Lavena’s death, but nothing official ever came of it.

One of the Congressional staffers, however, agreed to speak to Toward Freedom anonymously, saying when the Congressional team asked for Lavena’s autopsy photos, “the Army pushed back hard.” This staffer suggests if you believe the Army’s version of how Lavena died, you need to check your intelligence for a power outage. “The Army’s story is ridiculous,” scoffs the staffer.

Activists such as Army Ret. Col. Ann Wright, now a peace activist who’s currently sailing the Mediterranean with the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, says there are many more suspicious deaths of female soldiers and the military’s explanation behind them is simply not believable.

In fact, says Wright, there are 20-plus female soldier deaths under scrutiny, nearly all have occurred on bases in Afghanistan or Iraq. Of these 20, the military reports 14 were suicides, which includes Lavena Johnson. And like the Johnsons, many of these families refuse to accept the military’s explanation, believing their daughters died at the hands of fellow soldiers or contractors.

This much is clear: The mysterious deaths of female soldiers coincide with an increase in reported sexual violence against women in the military during a time when women are joining like never before. In 1970, female soldiers made up 1 percent of the entire armed forces; today, that number has jumped to roughly 15 percent, nearly 200,000 in all. As the numbers of female troops grow, the U.S. Department of Defense’s own reports bear out the rising problem of military sexual assaults in war zones: up 26 percent from 2007 to 2008, and another 33 percent over the following year.

One reason these numbers are spiking, says Wright, is because male soldiers know they can get away with it. In a 2008 Government Accountability Office survey that found 50 percent of military sexual-assault victims never even reported the crime because they felt their commanding officers would ignore the charges or worse, silence them is some way.

In a war zone, the air of intimidation following a rape, says Wright, can be ratcheted to another level simply because the victim is surrounded by violence and confusion.

“They’ll say, ‘You’re going to be dead by tomorrow,’” Wright says. “‘Raping you is just the cost of war. We’ll just chalk it up (your murder) to unsafe security.’”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.