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Army Private LaVena Johnson called home every day while she was deployed in Iraq. Her last conversation with her parents was on July 17, 2005. She excitedly told them she would probably be able to come home for Christmas.
“She told us not to decorate the tree until she got home,” LaVena’s mother, Linda Johnson, told Dateline. “We said we’d wait for her, of course. She was so happy to be coming home.”
But she would never make it home.
It was around 7 a.m. on the morning of July 19, 2005, when the doorbell rang at the Johnson home in Florissant, Missouri.
“There was a soldier on our front porch,” Linda told Dateline. “He told us LaVena was dead. And he said, well, he said she had killed herself.”
The Johnsons could not believe what they were hearing. In a documentary released in 2010, LaVena’s father, Dr. John Johnson, said he remembers watching the soldier, thinking he was a statue. His wife, Linda, continued to scream and cry behind him.
Nothing made sense to them. They had just spoken with LaVena days earlier. She told them she was about to start a new job on the base. Her outfit, the 129th Corps Support Battalion, would be rotating back to the United States in a few months, allowing her to be home for Christmas. She’d be home to help decorate the tree with her younger sister, a family tradition.
Their daughter had only been in Iraq six weeks when the soldier appeared at the front door that summer morning.
LaVena’s mother told Dateline that the devastating news that their daughter was gone was shocking enough, but when they were told it appeared to be self-inflicted, the information was almost too much to take.
“I felt my whole life slip away right there,” Linda said, remembering how she broke down in tears. “She would never do this. Our LaVena would never do this to herself. Someone did this. Someone took her from us.”
An official investigation was launched by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, which investigates soldiers' deaths and crimes within the Army.
Christopher Grey, Chief of Public Affairs for the Criminal Investigation Command, said in a statement to Dateline that LaVena Johnson’s death was “a tragic suicide.”
The ruling was something her family has never believed. And for the past 16 years, LaVena’s father has been on a mission to find his own answers to what happened to his daughter. His daughter, who took after him in so many ways.
“She looked like her daddy, acted like her daddy, everything,” Linda told Dateline. “She wanted to be just like him.”
The honor student’s decision to join the Army was influenced by her father’s own career path, her mother told Dateline. Dr. Johnson served in the Army for three years. He then went on to college, and earned a doctorate in psychology. Both he and Linda had civilian jobs in troop support for the Army. They have five children, and when LaVena decided to join the Army to pay for college, they were hesitant, but supportive.
In July 2005, instead of celebrating a birthday, their daughter was buried with military honors at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. She was promoted posthumously to private first class and awarded good conduct and commendation medals.
After the Army’s investigation into LaVena’s death, her parents began their own, convinced she would never take her own life and that a murder was covered up.
Investigators concluded that LaVena had shot herself in the mouth with her M-16 rifle in a contractor’s tent on the base. The report included witness testimony suggesting that she may have been depressed over a recent breakup, according to Chris Grey.
“We express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of PFC Johnson. We have and continue to take the death of PFC LaVena Johnson very seriously,’’ Grey said.
“Our lengthy and very thorough investigation by highly-trained Special Agents is based in fact; testimonial evidence, physical evidence and forensic evidence. The independent autopsy findings by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office came to the same conclusion. Tragically, there are many misrepresentations of the facts being circulated on the internet that are false and unsubstantiated.’’
LaVena’s parents dispute the Army’s conclusion and believe the findings were flawed because her death was investigated as a suicide, not a homicide.
They told Dateline their daughter had been happy and healthy. They said that her arms were too short; that she couldn’t have shot herself with her rifle. They also added that the wound in her head was too small to have been made by an M-16.
Dr. Johnson demanded to see the evidence and filed Freedom of Information requests and enlisted the assistance of local legislators. He formed his own investigation team, gathering family members with criminal science expertise and for years, they pored over documents, statements, and autopsy photos.
In 2007, the family had LaVena’s body exhumed for an independent autopsy, her mother told Dateline. The results were inconclusive.
“They plucked out part of my heart,’’ Dr. Johnson said in the 2010 documentary. “I can’t get it back. But I’m going to fight until I get justice for her. We’re just going to keep doing what we can to keep our story alive.”
While Dr. Johnson has fought for answers in his daughter’s death for 16 years, it has slowed this year due to his recent hospitalization.
But his wife told Dateline that he refuses to give up and continues to fight. While in the hospital, he never misses a chance to tell someone, a nurse, a doctor, about LaVena.
“After a 16-year-long nightmare, now we’re going through this,” Linda said. “Her death has really taken a toll on her father.”
They are hoping someone will come forward with information that will push the CID to reopen the investigation.
In his email to Dateline, Christopher Grey of the Criminal Investigation Command said the Army stands by its findings, but added that investigators would reopen the investigation should credible information surface.
LaVena was the first female soldier from Missouri to die in Iraq. She died just days before her 20th birthday in 2005, one year after graduating from high school.
Last week, on July 27, 2021, she would have turned 36 years old. Family members, local politicians and the community of Florissant gathered for a balloon release to honor her on the day.
“It’s important that her name is not forgotten,” Linda said. “She deserves better. She deserves justice.”
Anyone with information about LaVena’s case should contact the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command at 1-844-ARMY-CID, your local military office or submit tips at Army.CID.Crime.Tips@mail.mil.