Nineteen-year-old US Army Pvt. Lavena Johnson was found dead on the military base in Balad, Iraq, in July, 2005, and her death characterized by the US Army to be suicide from a self-inflicted M-16 shot. On April 9, 2008, Dr. John Johnson and his wife Linda, parents of Private Johnson, flew from their home in St. Louis for meetings with US Congress members and their staffs. They were in Washington to ask that Congressional hearings be conducted on the Army's investigation into the death of their daughter, an investigation that classified her death as a suicide despite extensive evidence suggesting she was murdered.
From the day their daughter's body was returned to them, the parents had grave suspicions about the Army's investigation into Lavena's death and the characterization of her death as suicide. In charge of a communications facility, Lavena was able to call home daily. In those calls, she gave no indication of emotional problems or being upset. In a letter to her parents, Lavena's commanding officer Capt. David Woods wrote, "Lavena was clearly happy and seemed in very good health both physically and emotionally."
In viewing his daughter's body at the funeral home, Dr. Johnson was concerned about the bruising on her face. He was puzzled by the discrepancy in the autopsy report on the location of the gunshot wound. As a US Army veteran and a 25-year US Army civilian employee who had counseled veterans, he was mystified how the exit wound of an M-16 shot could be so small. The hole in Lavena's head appeared to be more the size of a pistol shot rather than an M-16 round. He questioned why the exit hole was on the left side of her head, when she was right handed. But the gluing of military uniform white gloves onto Lavena's hands, hiding burns on one of her hands, is what deepened Dr. Johnson's concerns that the Army's investigation into the death of his daughter was flawed.
Over the next two and one-half years, Dr. and Mrs. Johnson and their family and friends relentlessly, through the Freedom of Information Act and Congressional offices requested the Department of the Army for documents concerning Lavena's death. With each response of the Army to the request for information, another piece of information/evidence about Lavena's death emerged.
The military criminal investigator's initial drawing of the death scene revealed Lavena's M16 was found perfectly parallel to her body. The investigator's sketch showed her body was found inside a burning tent, under a wooden bench, with an aerosol can nearby. A witness stated he heard a gunshot and, when he went to investigate, found a tent on fire, and when he looked into the tent, saw a body. The Army official investigation did not mention a fire or that her body had been burned.
After two years of requesting documents, one set of papers provided by the Army included a photocopy copy of a CD. Wondering why the photocopy copy was in the documents, Dr. Johnson requested the CD itself. With help from his local Congressional representative, the US Army finally complied. When Dr. Johnson viewed the CD, he was shocked to see photographs taken by Army investigators of his daughter's body as it lay where her body had been found, as well as other photographs of her disrobed body taken during the investigation.
The photographs revealed that Lavena, a small woman, barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, perhaps a weapon stock. Her nose was broken and her teeth knocked backwards. One elbow was distended. The back of her clothes had debris on them indicating she had been dragged from one location to another. The photographs of her disrobed body showed bruises, scratch marks and teeth imprints on the upper part of her body. The right side of her back as well as her right hand had been burned, apparently from a flammable liquid poured on her and then lighted. The photographs of her genital area revealed massive bruising and lacerations. A corrosive liquid had been poured into her genital area, probably to destroy DNA evidence of sexual assault.
Despite the bruises, scratches, teeth imprints and burns on her body, Lavena was found completely dressed in the burning tent. There was a blood trail from outside a contractor's tent to inside the tent. Apparently, she had been dressed after the attack and her attacker placed her body into the tent and set it on fire.