The Department of Defense statistics are alarming – one in three women who join the
The Department of Defense statistics are alarming – one in three women who join the
But, now, even more alarming, are deaths of women soldiers in
Of the 94
Eight women soldiers from
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.
Investigator records reveal members of her unit said Lavena told them she was going jogging with friends on the other side of the base. One unit member walked with her to the Post Exchange where she bought a soda and then, in her Army workout clothes, went on by herself to meet friends and get exercise. The unit member said she was in good spirits with no indication of personal emotional problems.
The Army investigators initially assumed Private Johnson’s death was a homicide and indicated that on their paperwork. However, shortly into the investigation, a decision apparently was made by higher officials that the investigators must stop the investigation into a homicide and to classify her death a suicide.
As a result, no further investigation took place into a possible homicide, despite strong evidence available to the investigators.
Another family that does not believe their daughter committed suicide in
Rape charges against the soldier whose sperm was found on her sleeping bag were dropped a few weeks after her death. He was convicted of failure to obey an order and sentenced to forfeiture of $714 for two months, 30 days restriction to the base and 45 days of extra duty.
On the same
The September 4, 2006, the death at
Other suspicious "noncombat related injury" deaths on Camp Taji include Fort Hood’s 1st Armored Cavalry Division Pfc. Melissa J. Hobart (who died June 6, 2004), 1st Armored Cavalry Sgt. Jeannette Dunn (who died November 26, 2006), 89th Military Police Brigade Specialist Kamisha J. Block (who died August, 2007), 4th Infantry Division Specialist Marisol Heredia (who died September 7, 2007) and 4th Infantry Division Specialist Keisha M. Morgan (who died February, 22, 2008). None of the deaths have been classified as suicides, but the circumstances of their deaths should be investigated further because of serious questions concerning their deaths.
The US Army has classified the deaths of four other women as suicides. In the space of three months in 2006, three members of the US Army, who had been part of a logistics group in Kuwait, committed suicide. Two of them were women. In August 2006, Lt. Col. Marshall Gutierrez was arrested at a restaurant in Kuwait and accused of shaking down a laundry contractor for a $3,400 bribe. He was allowed to return to his quarters, and found dead on September 4, 2006, with an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills and an open container of what appeared to be antifreeze.
Maj. Gloria D. Davis, 47, assigned to the Defense Security Assistance Agency, which handles the sales of military equipment to other countries, reportedly committed suicide in Baghdad on December 12, 2006, the day after she allegedly admitted to an Army investigator that she had accepted at least $225,000 in bribes from Lee Dynamics, a US Army contractor, who reportedly bribed officers for work in Iraq. Major Davis had a daughter, son and granddaughter. She had worked as a police officer, was a volunteer at women’s shelters and helped get disadvantaged African-American students into ROTC programs.
New York Army National Guard Sgt. Denise A. Lannaman, 46, was assigned to a desk job at a procurement office in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, that purchased millions of dollars in supplies. She received excellent performance ratings, her supervisor citing that her work eliminated misuse of funds by 36 percent. On October 1, 2006, Lannaman was questioned by a senior officer about the death of Lt. Col. Gutierrez, and reportedly told by that officer that she would be leaving the military in disgrace. Later in the day, she was found in a jeep, dead of a gunshot wound. While her family said she had attempted suicide four different times in her life, the Army has not ruled on the cause of Lannaman’s death.
US Army interrogator Specialist Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, was an Arabic linguist, who reportedly was very concerned about the manner in which interrogations were being conducted. She died on September 15, 2003, near Tal Afar, Iraq, in what the Army described as a gunshot wound to the head, a noncombat, self-inflicted weapons discharge, or suicide. Peterson reportedly objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners and refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Members of her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Peterson objected to. The military says all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. After refusing to conduct more interrogations, Peterson was assigned to guard the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards. She was also sent to suicide-prevention training. On the night of September 15, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle. Family members challenge the Army’s conclusion.
US Army Sgt. Melissa Valles, 26, assigned to Headquarters Detachment, Company B, 64th Forward Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Carson, Colorado, died on July 9, 2003, in Balad from two noncombat gunshot wounds to her abdomen. The Army has not ruled whether her death was a suicide or a homicide. But Valles’s family stated that, although small in stature at five-foot-three, she was a tough person. "She really put people in their place. She did that since she was a girl. She would put little boys who were bullies in their place." The family does not believe Valles committed suicide.
One suspicious noncombat death of a military woman occurred in Afghanistan.
On September 28, 2007, Massachusetts Army National Guard Specialist Ciara Durkin, 30, a finance specialist, was found lying near a church on the very secure Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with a single gunshot wound to her head. She had recently told her relatives to press for answers if anything happened to her while she was deployed in Afghanistan. When she was home three weeks prior to her death, she told her sister about something she had come across that raised some concern with her and that she had made some enemies because of it. Members of her family also questioned whether the fact that she was gay played a role in her death. They believe Ciara was killed by a fellow service member, intentionally or accidentally, and they are confident that she did not commit suicide.
In Bahrain, on January 16, 2007, US Navy Petty Officer First Class Jennifer A. Valdivia, 27, assigned to the naval security force for Naval Support Activity, Bahrain, was found dead three days after she was to report for duty on January 14. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has classified her death as a suicide. Valdivia was kennel master of the largest military kennel in the world. In 2005, she was named Sailor of the Year at the Bahrain Naval Base.
The circumstances surrounding each of these deaths warrants further investigation by the US military. Congress can compel the military to reopen cases and provide further investigation. I strongly urge Congress to demand further investigation of the deaths of these women.
US Army Reserve Colonel, Retired, Ann Wright is a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a US diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the US Department of State in March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq War. She is the co-author of "Dissent: Voices of Conscience."