by Ann Wright
The Department of Defense statistics are alarming — one in three women who join the US military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. The warnings to women should begin above the doors of the military recruiting stations, as that is where assaults on women in the military begins — before they are even recruited.
But, now, even more alarming, are deaths of women soldiers in Iraq, and in the United States, following rape. The military has characterized each of the deaths of women who were first sexually assaulted as deaths from “non-combat related injuries,” and then added “suicide.” Yet, the families of the women whom the military has declared to have committed suicide, strongly dispute the findings and are calling for further investigations into the deaths of their daughters. Specific US Army units and certain US military bases in Iraq have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of “non-combat related injuries,” with several identified as “suicides.”
94 US military women in the military have died in Iraq or during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). 12 US Civilian women have been killed in OIF. 13 US military women have been killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). 12 US Civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan.
Of the 94 US military women who died in Iraq or in OIF, the military says 36 died from non-combat related injuries, which included vehicle accidents, illness, death by “natural causes,” and self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or suicide. The military has declared the deaths of the Navy women in Bahrain that were killed by a third sailor, as homicides. 5 deaths have been labeled as suicides, but 15 more deaths occurred under extremely suspicious circumstances.
8 women soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas (six from the Fourth Infantry Division and two from the 1st Armored Cavalry Division) have died of “non-combat related injuries” on the same base, Camp Taji, and three were raped before their deaths. Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq. Two military women have died of suspicious “non-combat related injuries” on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as “suicides.”
19-year-old US Army Private 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 as 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 Captain 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 that Lavena’s M16 was found perfectly parallel to her body. The investigator’s sketch showed that her body was found inside a burning tent, under a wooden bench with an aerosol can nearby. A witness stated that he heard a gunshot and when he came 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 nor that her body had been burned.
After two years of requesting documents, one set of papers provided by the Army included a xerox copy of a CD. Wondering why the xerox 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 5 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. She apparently had been dressed after the attack and her attacker placed her body into the tent and set it on fire.
Investigator records reveal that 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 Iraq is the family of Army Private First Class Tina Priest, 20, of Smithville, Texas, who was raped by a fellow soldier in February, 2006 on a military base known as Camp Taji. Priest was a part of the 5th Support Battalion, lst Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. The Army said Tina was found dead in her room on March 1, 2006, of a self-inflicted M-16 shot, a “suicide”, 11 days after the rape. Private Priest’s mother, Joy Priest, disputes the Army’s findings. Mrs. Priest said she talked several times with her daughter after the rape, and while very upset about the rape, she was not suicidal. Priest continues to challenge the Army’s 800 pages of investigative documents with a simple question. How could her petite daughter, 5-foot-tall daughter with a short arm length, have held the M-16 at the angle which would have resulted in the gunshot? The Army attempted several attempts explanations, but each was debunked by Mrs. Priest and by the 800 pages of materials provided by the Army itself. The Army now says Tina used her toe to pull the trigger of the weapon that killed her. The Army never investigated Tina’s death as a homicide, but only as a suicide.
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 2 months, 30 days restriction to the base and 45 days of extra duty.
On the same Camp Taji, 10 days later after Tina Priest was found dead, on May 11, 2006, woman US Army Private First Class (name known to author, but not identified for the article), 19, was found dead. She died three days after she suffered what the Army called “a self-inflicted gunshot”. The Army claimed that she too had committed suicide. In her room where her body was found, investigators discovered her diary open to a page on which she had written about being raped during training after unknowingly drinking a date rape drug. The person identified in the diary as the rapist was charged by the Army with rape after her death. Many who knew her did not believe she shot herself, but there is no evidence of a homicide investigation by the Army.
The September 4, 2006 death at Camp Taji of Private First Class Hannah Gunterman McKinney, 20, of the 44th Corps Support Battalion, Ft. Lewis, WA was investigated and rather than having been run over by a military vehicle as she crossed a road from a guard tower to the latrine as initially claimed by the Army, she fell or was pushed from and run over by a vehicle driven by a drunk Sergeant from her unit who had first sexually assaulted her. The Sergeant pleaded guilty to drinking in a war zone, drunken driving and consensual sodomy with an underage, incapacitated junior soldier to whom he had supplied alcohol. A military judge ruled that McKinney’s death was an accident and the Sergeant was sentenced to 13 months imprisonment, demotion to private, but he would not be discharged from the Army.
Other suspicious “non-combat 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 Sergeant 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 U.S. 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 was 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 an open container of what appeared to be antifreeze.
Major 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, that 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 Sergeant Denise A. Lannaman, 46, 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 oversight 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. She was found in a jeep dead of a gunshot wound later in the day. While her family said that she had attempted suicide four different times in her life, the Army has not ruled on the cause of death of Lannaman.
US Army interrogator Specialist Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Ft. Campbell, KY, 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 non-combat, 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 that 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 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle. Family members challenge the Army’s conclusion.
US Army Sergeant Melissa Valles, 26, assigned to Headquarters Detachment, Company B, 64th Forward Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Carson, CO, died on July 9, 2003, in Balad from a two non-combat gunshot wounds to her abdomen. The Army has not ruled whether her death was a suicide or a homicide. But Valles’ family stated that although small in stature at 5 foot 3, 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 non-combat 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 1st Class Jennifer A. Valdivia, 27, assigned to the naval security force for Naval Support Activity, Bahrain, was found dead 3 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.
Although the data on the number of suicides in the military is vague and purposely underreported by the Veterans Administration, of 69 suicides of men in the military since 2002, 64 committed suicide in the United States, 1 in Kuwait, 2 in Iraq and 2 in Afghanistan. Men are much more likely to commit suicide once they return from a combat zone, than in the combat zone. Of the 8 alleged suicides of women in the military, 3 were in Iraq, 2 in the US, 1 in Kuwait and 1 in Bahrain. The question of why women would be more likely to commit suicide outside the US than once home should be investigated.
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 the Congress to demand further investigation of the deaths of these women.