The transition of the American military into a co-ed fighting force has brought with it the growing pains expected in such a large undertaking, and along the way has produced such notable humiliations as the Navy Tail-hook scandal of 1991, sexual assaults on women at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996 and at the Air Force Academy in 2003.
In each episode, extensive remedial programs about sexual harassment have been employed and rape hot lines have been instituted to augment the changing role of women in the armed services. Still, these measures have failed to prevent tragedies of rape or murder of female enlistees.
Complaints by servicewomen concerning misconduct by their male counterparts have continued, especially during the Iraqi War, now in its eighth year. In the aftershock of the now infamous Abu Ghraib prisoner-of-war abuses, former commander Gen. Janis Karpinski revealed that female soldiers under her command had died from dehydration in the Iraq heat since they refrained from consuming liquids late in the day, fearing they would be raped by male soldiers at night while en route to poorly lit latrines [toilets], according to a Truthout.org report in January 2006 by Marjorie Cohn, titled “Military hides cause of women soldiers’ death.”
Iraq’s largest base, Joint Base Balad, which resembles a small city, and other large military compounds in Iraq are saturated with electric generators used to produce energy to sustain them. However, this equipment generates so much noise that a woman’s screams of distress are easily drowned out at night. Female soldiers resort to traveling in groups and carrying knives for protection against their brothers in arms.
July marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Pvt. LaVena Johnson from what has been termed “non-combat-related injuries” during the Iraqi War. Since then, her family has refused to accept the Army’s official conclusion that her demise was a suicide, allegedly as a result of depression following her contracting a sexually transmitted disease from a boyfriend who has yet to be identified.
What is known by is that after going off duty, Johnson, an African American native from Florissant, Mo., went to the post exchange with members of her unit on July 19, 2005. She then left the group to join friends to go jogging. She never met them, and was not seen again until her body was discovered early the next morning in a burning tent.
Just a few days shy of her 20th birthday, Johnson’s body was found mutilated with a broken nose, a black eye, and some corrosive liquid applied to her genital area. Despite the initial assessment of homicide by Army investigators, her death was somehow ruled a suicide due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound through her mouth, presumably from the M-16 rifle found next to her body. An aerosol can found there may have been used as an accelerant to burn her body and set the tent on fire. Odd was the fact that although her corpse had been burned, her exercise clothing was untouched by the fire. The bullet that killed her was never recovered.
Sgt. Denise A. Lannaman, 46, of Bayside (Queens), N.Y., died of a “non-combat gunshot wound” at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, while serving with the Army’s 63rd Engineering Company. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Lannaman became a naturalized U.S. citizen and served in the Navy and Navy Reserve for nine years. She decided to join the N.Y. Army National Guard in May 2003.
Trained as a truck driver in the Army National Guard, Lannaman was deployed originally to Iraq with the 1569th Transportation Company out of Newburgh, N.Y., in January 2005, but was later reassigned to the 63rd.
Following the death of a female officer at Camp Arifjan, who was accused of shaking down a laundry contractor, Lannaman also had been questioned. She was told she would be sent home in disgrace, but it is unknown whether she was accused of being somehow involved with the officer’s bribery charge, or whether it had something to do with being a lesbian. But that same day Lannaman was found dead in a jeep.
Was her death a murder or suicide? In September 2007, her mother received a letter from the Army, along with Lannaman’s honorable discharge certificate.
Major Gloria D. Davis, 47, of Portageville, Mo., died in Baghdad at Camp Victory from a non-combat gunshot, which is under investigation. This was her second tour of duty in Iraq. Before deploying to Iraq, Davis had worked in the Pentagon and was supposed to report there on Sept. 11, 2001, but had taken the day off to visit her daughter.
Davis had served in the Army 18 years and in Iraq since September. Before joining the Army she had received her master’s degree and worked as a police officer. After being assigned to the Washington, D.C., area she became involved at women’s shelters, and helped get disadvantaged African American children into ROTC programs. Davis was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and there was a memorial service held in her hometown for family and friends who couldn’t attend the service in Arlington. The New York Times reported in an article titled, “U.S. says company bribed officers for work in Iraq” (Aug. 31, 2007), that Davis had admitted to an Army investigator that she had accepted at least $225,000 in bribes from Lee Dynamics. The following day she committed suicide.
The U.S. has begun proceedings to seize her assets, a move her heirs are contesting. The Criminal Investigation Division calls her death a suicide by gun and that she shot herself with her left hand. Davis was right-handed. She was planning to retire in two years and, according to her mother, the military hasn’t found the money it claims Davis took in bribes.
Genesia Mattril Gresham, 19, of Lithonia, Ga., died in Bahrain from injuries she received from a non-combat gunshot. In fact, it is reported that she was murdered by another sailor who had a previous relationship with her. She was serving as a Master-at-Arms Seaman (E-3) assigned to the U.S. Naval Support Activity in Bahrain.
Spec. Christine M. Ndururi, 21, of Dracut, Mass., died in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, while supporting Operational Iraqui Freedom from a non-combat illness. She was assigned as an automated logistical specialist to the 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Hood, Texas. Her death is under investigation. Originally from Kenya her family moved to Massachusetts in 2002.
Army Spc. Keisha M. Morgan, 25, of Washington, D.C., died on Feb. 22, 2008, in Baghdad of a non-combat-related cause. She was assigned to the Division Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. Morgan’s mother, Diana, was told that the Army “doesn’t know” how she died. Morgan’s best friend, Ruby, found her having a seizure but responsive on the floor of their Baghdad barracks. She died, according to a news source, a short time later.
Her mother said she spoke to Morgan less than a week before she died. She was engaged to a civilian contractor in Iraq who was visiting family in Puerto Rico when she died. Her fiancé and mother wanted to have an independent autopsy performed, but were informed by the Army that her brains and heart had been removed because of the ongoing investigation, so another autopsy would be pointless.
USN NC Cherie Morton, 40, of Bakersfield, Calif., died of a non-combat injury in her quarters in Qalali, Muharraq, in Bahrain. She was assigned to Naval Security Force, Naval Support Activity in Bahrain as a Petty Officer First Class (E-6) Command Career Counselor (NC) for the Southwest Asia area. Morton had served 15 years in the Navy and was twice awarded the Navy Achievement Medal, and received the Good Conduct Medal on four occasions. She was born in Rockford, Ill. She was found on the floor in her living room after apparently suffering a head injury, according to sources. Investigators don’t suspect foul play.
These servicewomen represent just six of at least 41 deaths of Black female personnel who have succumbed to non-combat-related injuries in Middle Eastern combat. This number includes Major Gloria D. Davis, who allegedly shot herself after being implicated in an $11-million bribery investigation involving a major defense contractor. Curiously, despite her possible complicity in governmental fraud, Davis was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which is noted for its restrictive requirements for interment.
Prostitution has been a fact of life among troops serving time in various theaters of war, and traditionally military brass have looked the other way, favoring the oldest profession as a sexual release and a method to burn off excess aggression. However, prostitution is not openly allowed in Muslim countries.
Given the longer deployments and their connection to the increase in psychological problems experienced by veterans, it is easy to attribute these increased assaults to the effects of extended life in the “pressure cooker” environment of unconventional warfare with ill-defined objectives. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), reports military rapes jumped 73 percent from 2004 to 2006.
This issue has affected female civilian employees as well, most notably Jamie Leigh Jones, an administrative assistant for KRB, a company that makes steel bars or rods used to reinforce concrete, who was raped in 2005. Jones has since filed a lawsuit against KRB, testified about her ordeal before Congress, and founded a nonprofit advocacy agency for American government workers who have been victimized while working overseas (www.jamiesfoundation.org/).
Army Col. Ann Wright (Ret.) has enjoyed a varied career during her tenure with the adjutant general corps, and later as a diplomat with the State Department before tendering her resignation in 2003.
Wright became acquainted with the Pvt. LaVena Johnson’s family through her activity with the antiwar movement and has specific concerns about violence against service women. During a telephone interview, Col. Wright admitted that she is mystified by the way the investigation and subsequent autopsies were conducted, and was notably perplexed that the second coroner’s verdict took eight months to reach the family of the deceased.
Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) Paul Hudson, a senior Army criminal supervisor and an organizer of the meeting between the Johnson family and the investigative team, was reportedly on leave and unavailable to answer questions as this article was being prepared.
Official Army spokesman Paul Boyce said during a phone interview that the death of Pvt. Johnson was thoroughly investigated and data shared with her family.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has gone on record declaring that she and other lawmakers have “…gotta find the truth about what happened to this young lady. Her family deserves that at a minimum….”
But when contacted, a spokesperson for McCaskill responded by saying that the senator has a policy of not commenting on continuing investigations.
Meanwhile, the circumstances of Johnson’s death, while not widely covered in the United States, have attracted international attention, in large part due to the Internet and the aggressive commentary of individual bloggers. The Johnsons say they plan to file a criminal lawsuit.
The death of private Johnson is just one of the sexually based crimes involving female personnel in the Middle East and stateside, and both are among the myriad of scandals plaguing this conflict.
Concerns about increased incidents of gender-specific violence, perpetrated not only against Iraqis but military personnel, have been voiced by high-profile figures such as Rep. Jane Harman and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), major proponents of House Congressional Resolution 397, which calls for increased inquiry and the prosecution of rape as sexual assault.
The specter of gender persecution casts an additional shadow over the Department of Defense’s “zero tolerance” policy. This in turn might raise the anxiety levels of Americans whose daughters, mothers, and wives are in the arena, civilian or military, and the ire of Muslim extremists who see this as another example of the secular corruption spawned by the Western infidels who threaten their existence.