Army Sgt La David T Johnson wasn’t captured alive or killed at close range when he was killed during an ambush in Niger, a military investigation concluded
The family of Army Sgt La David Johnson say they have been kept in the dark about the circumstances of his death during a firefight in Niger and they now demand to know the truth.
It was revealed on Sunday that the 25-year-old Miami native died in a hail of gunfire, hit as many as 18 times as he took cover in thick brush, fighting to the end after fleeing militants who had just killed three comrades in an October ambush in Niger, The Associated Press has learned.
A military investigation has concluded that Johnson wasn’t captured alive or killed at close range, dispelling a swirl of rumors about how he died.
In an interview with CNN on Monday, Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, and his sister, Richshama, accused the military of failing to share pertinent information with them about La David’s death, thus denying them closure.
‘We find out everything via social media,’ La David’s sister told the network. ‘They haven’t talked to our family about where was his whereabouts. They haven’t briefed us the proper way like they were supposed to.’
The man’s mother said she learned of the latest findings from a Facebook post while having dinner Sunday night.
‘I ran out of the restaurant because they never notified us that that was the final investigation,’ Mrs Jones-Johnson said of the report.
Family break their silence: Sgt Johnson’s sister, Richshama (left) and mother Cowanda (right) on Monday accused the Pentagon of keeping them in the dark about his death
La David’s mother called on the Pentagon to tell the truth. His sister said they have been learning of the latest developments from social media
She went on to tell CNN host Alisyn Camerota that over the past three months, the Army has offered her seven different version of events, including that La David possibly had been captured and that he had activated his GPS tracking device and was on the move.
A day later, the family were told that La David’s status had changed from ‘unknown’ to ‘killed in the line of duty.’
‘I want the truth,’ Jones-Johnson demanded. ‘If they would’ve just told us the truth behind the situation from day one, we won’t even be sitting here because we would have closure and we can move on from this.
‘And if they would’ve just told us that he did get killed in the line of duty and he was captured, we would have understood.’
The soldier’s mother also addressed the controversy surrounding the phone conversation between President Donald Trump and La David’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, who claimed that the commander-in-chief could not recall her husband’s name and made comments about his death that reduced her to tears, including that the soldier ‘knew what he signed up for.’
The president publicly disputed the widow’s version of events, insisting that he did remember the fallen soldier’s name and that he was respectful to Mrs Johnson.
‘I think that it just wasn’t the time for the conversation,’ Cowanda said of Trump’s condolence call. ‘I think if we was home and we were sitting in the house eating and drinking and he called, it would have probably been a little bit more different.’
The mother corroborated her daughter-in-law’s story but suggested that the president’s words were not meant to offend.
‘I just think it was just the wrong time to be said,’ she said. ‘He did say it but I don’t that he was… trying to throw it in Myeshia’s face to make her feel bad. I think that he just didn’t know what to say to her at that time.
‘And I’m sad that it have to go to, you know, the way that it went because it took the focus of what really did happen over there to La David. It went to something totally different.’
When asked what message she wished to convey to Pentagon officials, Cowanda Jones-Johnson said: ‘Can you just please honor my son the way he honored his job? Just be truthful with us if nothing else is going to come out of it…. we want to know the truth so we can have closure and we can move on. And we can’t move on because every time we look on the news there’s something about La David.’
Sunday’s report has determined that Johnson was killed on October 4 by enemy rifle and machine gun fire from members of an ISIS offshoot, according to US officials familiar with the findings. Johnson’s body was recovered two days later.
US officials familiar with the findings spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to describe details of an investigation that has not been finalized or publicly released.
A 12-member Army special forces unit was accompanying 30 Nigerien forces when they were attacked in a densely wooded area by as many as 50 militants traveling by vehicle and carrying small arms and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Cowanda Johnson is comforted by Richard Johnson Jr. (L) and S.J. Johnson at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017
Johnson was struck as many as 18 times from a distance by a volley of machine gun rounds, according to the US officials, who said he was firing back as he and two Nigerien soldiers tried to escape.
All told, four US soldiers and four Nigerien troops were killed in the ambush. Two US and eight Nigerien troops were wounded.
The bodies of three US Green Berets were located on the day of the attack, but not Johnson’s remains. The gap in time led to questions about whether Johnson was killed in the assault and not found, or if he was taken away by the enemy.
According to the officials, a medical examination concluded that Johnson was hit by fire from M-4 rifles – probably stolen by the insurgents – and Soviet-made heavy machine guns. It is believed he died in the attack.
The officials said Johnson was found under thick scrub brush where he tried to take cover. There were no indications he was shot at close range, or had been bound or taken prisoner, as several media reports have suggested.
A US Africa Command began its investigation with a team headed by Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the command’s chief of staff. The team visited locations in Niger to collect evidence and information about the attack, and will soon submit a draft of Cloutier’s report to Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of Africa Command. Waldhauser could ask for additional information. The final report is expected to be released next month.
The officials familiar with the report’s conclusions said that during the attack, Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers tried to get to a vehicle to escape, but were unable to do so, became separated from the others and were shot as they were running for safety.
Myeshia Johnson, the wife of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, kisses her husband’s casket during his burial on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017
Members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, 2nd battalion cry at the tomb of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at his burial service on October 21, 2017
The report concluded that Johnson, who was athletic and a runner, was in the lead and got the farthest away, seeking cover in the brush.
Officials said there were a number of enemy shells around Johnson, and evidence that he appeared to fight to the end. His boots and other equipment were later stolen, but he was still wearing his uniform.
As news of the ambush came out, the US military sent in rescue teams to search for Johnson, not making his status public in the hope he might have gotten away and was still alive and hiding. The Pentagon only acknowledged that he was missing after his body was located two days later by local forces.
The Pentagon has declined to release details about the exact mission of the commando team.
US officials have previously said that the joint US-Niger patrol had been asked to assist a second American commando team hunting for a senior Islamic State member, who also had former ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The team had been asked to go to a location where the insurgent had last been seen, and collect intelligence.
The October 4 ambush took place about 120 miles (200 kilometers) north of Niamey, the African nation’s capital
After completing that mission, the troops stopped in a village for a short time to get food and water, then left. The US military believes someone in the village may have tipped off attackers to the presence of US commandos and Nigerien forces in the area, setting in motion the ambush.
US special operations forces have been routinely working with Niger’s forces, helping them to improve their abilities to fight extremists in the region. That effort has increased in recent years, the Pentagon said.
The three other Americans killed were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
Johnson’s combat death led to a political squabble between President Trump and a Democratic congresswoman from Florida after Trump told Johnson’s pregnant widow in a phone call that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson was riding with Johnson’s family to meet the body and heard the call on speakerphone. The spat grew to include Trump’s chief of staff, who called Wilson an “empty barrel” making noise.