Forgotten Ranks #SayHerName
Two years after graduating high school, I made the decision to join the Army. It wasn’t an easy one to make but I needed money for college. Trying to work full-time and save money was not working out for me.
Even though my Dad served twenty-two years in the Army, I never saw myself in fatigues and combat boots. He encouraged me to consider all the opportunities that would be available, in addition to getting the G.I. Bill.
The eight years I served turned out to be the best years of my life. I was able to cultivate skills I didn’t even know I had, and translate them into corporate America and my writing life.
Oftentimes while serving, I found myself being the “only” – the only Black person, or the only woman. There were moments I felt anxious, realizing I needed to be twice as good with no mistakes.
As a female soldier, I never feared for my safety. However, there were times I was very aware that a situation could go terribly wrong; how easily I could have been taken advantage of. Men and women soldiers, being in close quarters for long periods of time, under stressful situations can lead to unwanted circumstances. Some women in the military know this all too well.
Sexual assault and violence in the military is a real problem. In the last three years, there has been an almost 50 percent increase in assaults on women in uniform, according to the Defense Department. Their annual ‘Report on Sexual Assault in the Military’ estimated that there were 20,500 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2018. Only 300 cases were prosecuted and there was “disciplinary action” of some kind in 65 percent of cases.
Women now make up about 20 percent of the military, but are the targets of 63 percent of assaults, the survey found, with the youngest and lowest-ranking women most at risk.
Overall, one out of every 16 military women reported being groped, raped or otherwise sexually assaulted within the last two years. As we know, victims are often fearful of coming forward, because they are afraid their case won’t be handled well, and they are afraid they will be retaliated against.
The most shocking case of violence is that of PFC Lavena Johnson in 2005. I feel some kind of connection to her, as we are both from Missouri, both attended basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. She followed in the footsteps of her father, as I did. We both found the Army as a way to pay for college.
On July 19, 2005, Lavena was found murdered in her tent, while serving in Iraq. The Department of Defense ruled it a suicide, however the evidence never supported that. The autopsy report and photographs revealed she had a broken nose, black eye, loose teeth, burns from a corrosive chemical on her genitals, and a gunshot wound that was not consistent with suicide. It’s suspected that the chemical burns were to destroy DNA evidence of a rape.
Even more disturbing, a second autopsy report showed the military had removed part of LaVena’s tongue, vagina and anus, and didn’t tell her family or document this in the first autopsy. Lavena’s father believes the military took his daughter’s body parts to hide what truly happened to her: Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
As unbelievable 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 deaths were ruled “non-combat related”.
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 2020, no one has been held accountable for PFC Lavena Johnson’s murder.
LaVena Lynn Johnson 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.
Deciding to serve your country is not an easy choice to make. Women, in general, face certain challenges just to be accepted and considered equal. What they shouldn’t have to face is rape, assault, or being killed. And then the further disrespect of their deaths being swept under the rug. It’s deplorable. It’s unimaginable.
Congress can compel the military to reopen cases and provide further investigation. It appears that these women’s lives are not important enough to them to do that. We can't ever forget them or stop holding their names, faces, and stories up.