Tracey Barnett: Women GIs in fear of the enemy in their army

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When Dr John Johnson finally brought himself to look at the slain body of his beautiful 19-year-old daughter flown home from Iraq, he knew immediately he was looking at murder. This was no suicide from a self-inflicted M-16 wound, as the military would later claim.

Private LaVena Johnson's nose was broken, teeth were loose, one eye was concave and there were abrasions over her body. The supposed M-16 hole to the head was far too small for the revolver-sized exit wound, and was on the wrong side of her skull for a right-handed woman to have pulled the trigger. Her genital area showed evidence of acid, perhaps used to destroy DNA evidence. She had white military gloves glued to her burned hands.

When I asked LaVena's mother if she felt her daughter's case was being covered up by the US military, she replied without hesitation: "Absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind."

Three years after her daughter's body had been flown home from Iraq, it was still too painful for Linda Johnson to describe the first moments when she realised her daughter had been raped, shot, burned with acid, then dumped in a contractor's tent and set on fire.

"I'm telling you there is no pain like it - there is no pain like it in this world.

My daughter, the way they took her and what they did to her - it's inhuman. I did not believe my daughter was placed among a group of predators. They treated her like an animal ... " Linda Johnson said, then added quietly: "And she was fighting for this country."

When the coroner ruled her death a suicide and failed to include any of the physical trauma in his report, Dr. Johnson told him, "Somebody murdered my daughter and you picked the wrong person to **** with."

It reads like next year's Oscar-winning screenplay, but there's no real-life ending in sight. The death was initially taped off as a crime scene but the investigation was shut down by a general's order.

The Johnsons are still fighting for answers. It was only recently, when they met anti-war activist Retired Colonel Ann Wright, that there has been a flicker of movement. Her contacts got Dr Johnson an audience with Congress. Since then, he's received word that LaVena's case may make it on to the congressional agenda.

Tragically, the Johnson family are not alone.

This is no single aberrant case. John Johnson has discovered far more stories that have matched his daughter's than he ever wanted to know. Ten other families of "suicide" female soldiers have contacted him. The common thread among them - rape.

Meet today's US military - sign up for the armed services and become almost one in three women who are raped or sexually assaulted by their own colleagues, according to Department of Defence statistics. Not exactly the kind of recruitment slogan that fills empty boots.

Upon returning home, these same women will be nine times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress.

A Rand Corporation study noted that returning women veterans are suffering from more such stress than men, but no one thought to ask how much of it is from being raped by the comrades who are supposed to be watching your back.

Women Veterans' groups describe how some women are coerced by higher-ups to use their bodies to obtain food or generators out in the field, as part of "command rape".

In 2003, three women died in their beds of dehydration because they had stopped drinking in the 50-degree heat late in the day for fear of going to the latrine at night. Camp generators were so loud they would muffle the sound of women's screams as their own soldiers jumped them and dragged them to the Port-a-Johns to be assaulted.

Fathers like John Johnson sent their daughters off to war assuming that the enemy was on the other side of the divide - and for the vast majority of recruits it is.

But Colonel Wright points to specific Army units and bases that have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of "non-combat related injuries" or "suicides", both of which are never counted in the US official death toll.

Dr Johnson has told the US Senate the name of one of the men who he believes murdered his daughter. A high-ranking officer was kicked out of Iraq two days after his daughter was found dead. He said: "If this had been a private, they would have thrown him under a bus a long time ago."

All he wants is justice for his daughter.

As a third generation military man he knows only too well; know your enemies. The real tragedy today is that almost one-third of American female soldiers can't begin to answer that question.

* www.traceybarnett.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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