“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see."
Those were the words of Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, who made the courageous decision to have an open casket at her son’s funeral in 1955. She wanted all to see the disfigured, mutilated and water-logged body of her only son.
This may have been the decision that lifted Till’s case above the thousands of black men and women whose lives and deaths are merged memories of America’s ugly lynching legacy.
I had a similar feeling as I viewed The Silent Truth last week, a documentary about the life and death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson. The documentary is a Midtown Production and directed by Joan Brooker Marks. It is a riveting story of LaVena’s journey in the military and a loving family’s determination to prove that the U.S. Army is covering up her rape and murder.
Like Mamie Till-Mobley, the Johnsons want “the world to see” what happened to LaVena. And there it is – on the big screen – for all to witness and deal with.
Eight weeks after being deployed to Iraq and eight days shy of her twentieth birthday, the Johnson family received the grim news that their loved one had committed suicide. Dr. John Johnson, LaVena’s father, has led the charge to find out the truth about her death and to get justice.
The Army’s account of what happened to LaVena was riddled with contradictions, from the alleged self-inflicted wound to where the body was found. Every piece of information uncovered was a painful and laborious act because of the Army’s refusal to cooperate.
When Dr. Johnson finally received photos from the crime scene and LaVena’s autopsy, he observed abrasions to the face, burns on her body, a broken nose, bite marks, knocked out teeth and signs of sexual abuse – details not mentioned in the autopsy report.
U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) has said that "a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire." The Pentagon’s report on sexual abuse of women, who make up 15 percent of the military, underscores that gruesome fact.
Sexual assault among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan rose to 25 percent in 2009 from 9 percent the previous year. This means that 1 out of 4 women can expect to be sexually victimized by their fellow soldiers. The Pentagon estimates that 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, and admits that only 8 percent of cases that are investigated end in prosecution (compared with 40 percent for civilians arrested for sex crimes). To add insult to injury, 80 percent of those convicted are still honorably discharged.
The Johnson family has received support from retired Army Col. Ann Wright, who works to raise awareness of sexual assault in the military, and from U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay. Both are featured in the documentary.
I was privileged to meet Mamie Till-Mobley. For almost 50 years, she fought a gallant battle to find the truth and expose a racist system that robbed families of the justice they so desperately sought. I felt her strength and resolve the same way I feel the parents of LaVena Johnson.
There is no doubt in my mind that LaVena’s death will be vindicated. But this is more than one family’s burden. As taxpayers, our dollars support the military whether we like it or not. We, too, have a duty to hold our government and its military accountable for what it does to human beings, whether they are U.S. citizens or the citizens of other countries.
For more about LaVena Johnson, visit www.lavenajohnson.com.