Two soldiers, and what we owe them

All they ask is an honest accounting

The New York Times today recounts the ongoing and frustrating efforts of Patrick K. Tillman to learn just how his son Pat died in Afghanistan. Cpl. Pat Tillman went from professional football player to Army Ranger to martyred hero to victim of an unexplained friendly fire incident. His story is nationally known - even if the actual circumstances of his death are not - due in large part to the lionization of Cpl. Tillman by the public and the media in the early days after his death. Now that the initial account of that death has unraveled, the story's notoriety has forced a belated official investigation:

After repeated complaints from the Tillmans and members of Congress contacted by them, the Army is immersed in a highly unusual criminal investigation of the killing, and the Defense Department's inspector general, which called for the criminal investigation this month, is looking separately into the Army's conduct in its aftermath.

Senior military officials said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had expressed outrage to top aides that the Army was having to conduct yet another inquiry into the shooting, prolonging the family's anguish and underscoring the failure of the Army's investigative processes to bring resolution.

When even Rumsfeld takes an interest - Rumsfeld, who famously once allowed his signature to be rubber-stamped on letters sent to the families of those killed in action rather than taking the time to sign them himself - you can be sure that official attention is finally being brought to bear. That raises a troubling question, however, one asked aloud by the mother of Cpl. Tillman:

"This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual," she said. "How are they treating others?"

This brings us to the matter of Pfc. LaVena Johnson.

Pfc. Johnson was no professional athlete prior to military service. She was an honor roll student out of Hazelwood Central High here in the St. Louis area with straight As in her senior year. She played the violin, she donated blood, she volunteered for American Heart Association walks. Johnson elected to put off college for a while and joined the Army once out of school. At Fort Campbell, KY, she was assigned as a weapons supply manager to the 129th Corps Support Battalion. Johnson was shipped out to Iraq despite - according to family accounts - having flunked her weapons training.

Private LaVena Johnson of Florissant, MO, died near Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005, just eight days shy of her twentieth birthday. She was the first woman soldier from Missouri to die while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to Johnson's father, Dr. Jack Johnson, an Army representative said that his daughter died of "died of self-inflicted, noncombat injuries," but initially added that it was not a suicide. As described by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Norm Parish, the story soon became confused. First the Army public affairs officer at Fort Campbell confirmed that Johnson had been shot in the head. He later reversed himself, stating that he could not confirm that injury. A local employee at the chapel handling Johnson's funeral arrangements did confirm a wound on the left side of Johnson's head that appeared to be a bullet hole.

The Army announced that the matter had been referred to its Criminal Investigation Division, all while maintaining that the referral did not mean that a crime had been committed. Less than a week later, the Army ruled Johnson's death a suicide. Dr. Johnson refuted the finding and pointed to indications that his daughter had endured a physical struggle before she died - two loose front teeth, a "busted lip" that had to be reconstructed by the funeral home - suggesting that "someone might have punched her in the mouth." Also in this later story by the P-D's Parish:

In the interview, he said the wound to the left side of his daughter's head may be an indication that someone else was involved, since she was right-handed. "I'm not a forensic expert, but I am just talking about what seems obvious to me," he said.

And since then there has been little heard of the death of LaVena Johnson or the investigation into that death. The office of U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay announced that it would press the military for answers, but no public statements at all have been issued by that office in the past months. The P-D did run a follow-up piece on the Johnson family written during the holidays. According to that piece, the Army's investigation was still ongoing though officials offered no comment. That official silence is to be expected, perhaps, yet perhaps not to be entirely trusted.

At first glance, the contrast between the cases of Pat Tillman and LaVena Johnson seems disturbingly vast, but at the core the situations are the same. In each case, the death of a young person who served us in a dangerous place and time was not explained to the families they left behind, the families that gave them up so that they could serve us. An honest accounting of their passing is all the dead ask of us. We owe them that much.

The facts behind Pat Tillman's death, whatever they may be, could easily have officially ignored and would be now save only for the public attention already invested in his story.

The facts behind the death of LaVena Johnson - whatever they may be - deserve no less attention.

(All Post-Dispatch stories on LaVena Johnson now behind that paper's archive wall. Thanks to Grey Eagle: A Female Soldier for its post on Pfc. Johnson. This piece is cross-posted.)

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