Tuesday 9.30pm SBS ONE
Wednesday 2.00pm SBS ONE (repeat)

Dark Secrets

 

In recent weeks here in Australia, footballers behaving badly and abusing their celebrity status to gain sexual advantage has been pretty big news. But over in the US - different uniforms, but ultimately the same issue - an even bigger scandal is unfolding within, no less, the country's giant military machine. Take this statistic - 1 in 3 women in the US Army ends up being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier. The military denies that figure, but a former high-ranking officer says it's accurate. Here's Ginny Stein

 

 

REPORTER: Ginny Stein

 

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery - here the US military honours more than 170,000 war dead from campaigns past and present. But for the family of one soldier buried here, the defence force's code of honour and respect means nothing.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON, FATHER: You blessed us when you gave her to us. We just never imagined we wouldn't have her long enough.

 

Today, Dr John Johnson has come back to reaffirm his promise to his 19 year old daughter - that he will continue the fight to find out how she died.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: God I am asking you to just continue to bless us, to encourage us to get justice for her.

 

 

Dr Johnson refuses to believe the army's finding that his daughter, Private LaVena Lynn Johnson, killed herself just five weeks into her tour of Iraq by firing her M16 rifle into her mouth.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: You get a 19-year-old female that gets off work, she puts an infra-red reflecting belt around her waist, she stops at the PX and buys soda, lip balm and M&M's, then you going to say she walks across the post and sets down in a dark trashy contractor's tent and set down and shot herself with an M16 rifle - and that doesn't even make sense.

 

LINDA JOHNSON, MOTHER: And she put all her senior paraphernalia all around the room and she was asking me "Mom, do I have it right? How does this look?" And I can't bear to take it down.

 

LaVena's mother Linda spoke to her daughter the night before she died.

 

LINDA JOHNSON: She was her happy, jubilant bubbly self. We laughed. Like I say, we were making plans - talking about Christmas and it's July 17!

 

Two days after that call, a soldier showed up unannounced at the Johnson's home in Missouri.

 

LINDA JOHNSON: So he looked up at me and he said "are you Linda Johnson, the mother of Private LaVena Lynn Johnson?" And I said "Yes, I am. What do you want?" And he opened his little book and he said, and he began to read "I regretfully inform you that your daughter Private LaVena Lynn Johnson is dead of a self-inflicted wound, gunshot wound" and I just began screaming and hollering, I just lost it. I couldn't believe it.

 

After the initial shock, the family began to question the army's rush to judgement that LaVena died of a self-inflicted injury.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: OK, that's the one with the rifle.

 

Dr Johnson is a veteran himself who went on to work for the army as a civilian specialist in psychology, for nearly three decades. But for the past three years he has studied every aspect of his daughter's death.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON:  But I'm looking for the sketch that the criminal investigators made. That's the shell casing - a close-up of it. That's another blood pattern.

 

With his brother Joe, a former prisons officer with forensics training, they've spent countless hours analysing and cross-referencing photos, reports, and the testimony of those in the camp.

 

JOE JOHNSON, UNCLE: In the eyewitness account they state that from the time he heard what he deemed to be either backfire or a gunshot, he looked in the direction and he saw flames coming from the tent known as DFAC2, which is the contractor's tent.

 

One of many inconsistencies, according to Dr Johnson, is the army's conclusion that LaVena used an accelerant to start a small fire to burn her diary, which then spread to a nearby bench.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: The witnesses say that the stool was lying on top of her. Someone lit an accelerant and the accelerant was sitting on the bottom of the stool. So physically that evidence shows that there was at least another person in that location when her body was placed there because that is not where she died.

 

REPORTER: There's also, you believe, that there are signs that she was sexually assaulted?

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: Correct.

 

Dr Johnson believes LaVena was raped and murdered by someone in her camp, and accuses the army of covering up a soldier-on-soldier slaying. It would be easy to dismiss his conclusions as the imaginings of a grief-stricken father if it weren't for the disturbing pattern of sex crimes and judicial inaction in the US military. Jessica Kenyon is an army veteran, and today she is giving a talk to students at a New York college.

 

JESSICA KENYON, FORMER SOLDIER: I didn't understand until it happened to me. I couldn't have effectively helped anybody until it happened to me.

 

Jessica says she survived multiple rapes and sexual assaults during her military career, and she is now campaigning to increase awareness of the problem. Becoming an officer had been her dream.

 

 

JESSICA KENYON: It is important for those of us who are able to speak out to do so for the ones who are just not able to - mentally, emotionally or whatever. This is the 2nd Infantry Division which is basically everybody in Korea.   And then the wings and the US signify that I was in aviation.

 

But as a mechanic attached to a helicopter squadron, Kenyon found herself in a unit where few women had been before, and in a culture where bullying and persecution was the norm.

 

JESSICA KENYON: It was just pretty much a hazing birthday ritual. You know where they do this, they make them all up - he is actually tied to a chair, right now - but then they make him up and then throw him in the mud.

 

Sexual harassment at all levels was commonplace, and women were a source of derision. In this video she filmed at her base, a young soldier was taunted and humiliated by his commander for more than four hours, after it was discovered he was a virgin.

 

COMMANDER:  Louder... louder!

 

SOLDIER: I want to get laid. I want to get laid. I want to get laid.

 

Whilst in the US, Jessica says she was raped by a National Guard soldier, and later, sexually harassed by her training instructor. Jessica was then posted to Korea, where she continued working on Apache helicopters and still had high hopes for her career.

 

JESSICA KENYON So it didn't really effect my work until I was fully assaulted, fully raped by another soldier in Korea, who was actually a friend of mine, one of the few I had confided in while I was overseas. And so I didn't report that right away either as well for the same exact reasons that I couldn't trust my command or my commanders or my sergeants or anything, or anyone associated with my command.

 

Jessica says that she eventually made an official report after her superior insisted he would make sure her assailant was jailed. But when her attacker was found guilty, she says that same commander gave him just 45 hours of extra duty and a demotion of two ranks.

 

JESSICA KENYON:  It really breaks my heart, you know because I was really going in - I was pushing for the 20 years. Go officer! And, you know, I was fully capable. But for all of that to go down the way it did and for me to do the right thing and then for them to not even hold their end of the bargain, let alone add any honour to it, it was really pretty disgusting, heartbreaking.

 

ANN WRIGHT, RETIRED COLONEL: Most sexual assault victims are not treated well. They become a double victim. They become a victim of the system.

 

Retired army colonel Ann Wright is another veteran campaigning against sexual assaults.

 

ANN WRIGHT: The issue of sexual assault in our US military is very grave. One in three women it appears have been sexually assaulted during the time they have been in the military.

 

The former US diplomat and anti-war activist believes the military justice system is stacked against sexual-assault victims.

 

ANN WRIGHT: You are tattling on someone else in your unit, even though that person has committed a criminal act on you. Word gets out in the unit - "So and so has been messing around with someone else. Look at sergeant so and so, he's been accused of rape and he's got a wife and two kids and we can't sacrifice his career because of this unmarried, single 19—year-old woman who claims that he raped her."

 

But one-off violent assaults are not the army's only problem.

 

SARA RICH, MOTHER: There's Jake in the background and then Sonia and then Suzanne...

 

Suzanne Swift served in Iraq in 2004. Her mother Sara remembers well the night before her departure.

 

SARA RICH:  This was Valentines Day because I remember crying and all three of them were asleep and I thought this may be the last time I ever have all three of my kids sleeping in the same room.

 

SUZANNE SWIFT, FORMER SOLDIER: Oh, Mom...

 

Soon after arriving in Iraq, then 19-year-old Suzanne started calling her mother to tell her about problems within her platoon.

 

SARA RICH: I heard that the man that told me "Don't worry ma'am, we're going to be taking good care of your daughter" started asking her to go into a sexual relationship with him.

 

SUZANNE SWIFT: This is the only one I have left because I gave all of them away...

 

Suzanne experienced a phenomenon known in the military as command rape - junior soldiers coerced by higher-ranking commanders into sexual relationships, which the military legally defines as rape.

 

SUZANNE SWIFT: A couple of months into it, it kind of dawned on me, that it was, that I could say no to it and that I just hated it that much that I was like, "I don't care what you do to me."

 

SARA RICH: She was telling me about the humiliation, she was telling me about the things that these men were doing and saying. I remember at one point she said "Mom, you're either a bitch or a whore and I don't want to be either one of those. I don't want to be a bitch - I don't want to be a whore." And really I remember her crying.

 

But when Suzanne complained about how she was being treated, she says she was threatened.

 

SUZANNE SWIFT: He called me into his room one night and he was like "Look, I know that you are thinking it might be an OK thing to go to the commander about this, but I am just going to deny it and you are going to be the one that gets into trouble."

 

Suzanne was sent on scheduled home leave but when it came time to ship back to Iraq, she froze, and chose to go AWOL rather than return to face her assailants.

 

REPORTER: So, why did you decide? What happened that moment when you said no?

 

SUZANNE SWIFT: I just realised that I couldn't, there is no escape when you are there, in Iraq. No, the guy in charge of you is the guy in charge of you and he can make you do anything, including like run through that minefield. "You, go! I don't like you!"

 

This is Suzanne's statement to the military about her command rapes. When she was eventually arrested and jailed for going AWOL, the army offered her a deal - it would reduce her sentence if she signed a new, watered-down statement.

 

SARA RICH: So Suzanne's response to that was "Fuck that, I'm not doing it" and then she took the document and she corrected it - everything they had written - just so that they would really see what really happened to her. You know, I always and to this day, absolutely believe my daughter 100%. But that really, she's got some power, you know, she's really powerful and she's very strong and this showed me that she would rather go to prison than say, than deny what happened to her.

 

Suzanne Swift is now out of the army and getting back into normal life - today, helping out a friend with babysitting.

 

SUZANNE SWIFT: It's different, it's weird coming home and just like everybody is doing normal regular life things. And it's like, "Really? This still goes on? Like life goes on when I am out in the world doing other stuff?"

 

But for the next 18 months she is still on a ready reserve list, with the possibility of being called back hanging over her. And her assailant, still unpunished.

 

REPORTER: A major complaint of the people that I have talked to, who have been victims of sexual assault, is that when they reported it that they were victimised.

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS, US ARMY SPOKESMAN: This is a phenomenon that has existed and this is precisely part of the culture that we are in fact turning around.

 

Brigadier-General Jeff Phillips is a 30-year career veteran and deputy chief of the army's public relations department.

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS:  Before I go any further, I want to offer an apology to anyone associated with the army who has endured sexual abuse, sexual harassment, assault of any kind. This is a problem that the army is tackling with, we are going at it full bore, quite frankly.

 

DVD VOICEOVER: A sexual assault wounds the victim - physically, mentally and emotionally.

 

To try to change its culture, the army recently launched an awareness campaign using DVDs - like this one.

 

DVD VOICEOVER: When a sexual assault occurs, it is a direct violation of not just our army core values and warrior ethos, it is an assault on the army way of life. A life in which it is our duty to protect and take care of each other. No matter the time, place...

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS: Really what we are doing here is we are engaged in cultural change. Not unlike what the army went through in the late '40s, '50s and into the '60s as we addressed racial inequality - cultural change at a very profound level. The army in fact is leading the country in this sort of cultural change.

 

Those claims are no longer impressing the army's civilian masters.

 

CONGRESSWOMAN CAROLYN MALONEY, DEMOCRAT:  I find it outrageous that brave women...

 

At a hearing on sexual assault in the military last September, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney bemoaned the lack of progress by the Department of Defence.

 

CONGRESSWOMAN CAROLYN MALONEY: I have been in Congress for seven terms now and every single term we have had meetings with DOD and they come in and they confirm to us "We are going to be serious. We are going to take care of this. We are going to stop this - zero tolerance." But the rhetoric is not being turned into the reality of protecting our women - and in some cases men - in our military.

 

The committee was grilling Dr Kaye Whitley. She's the head of the Defence Department unit set up to address the sexual-assault problem. But Dr Whitley had failed to even turn up to an earlier hearing. And having finally appeared she had few answers, even as to why her own oversight body hadn't met for nearly two years.

 

CONGRESSMAN CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, REPUBLICAN: Do you know why it didn't meet?

 

DR KAYE WHITLEY: My understanding is they had a difficult time getting the right people in the jobs and getting them cleared. As I said, I wasn't privy to the discussions about why...

 

CONGRESSMAN CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The problem I'm having is that it sounds like you are weak.

 

Dateline tried to speak with Dr Whitley but she declined to be interviewed. This meeting is adjourned.

 

REPORTER: It seems that in this whole area all the army can do is apologise.

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS: In fact the first thing we do is apologise because we do recognise that there is a problem that reflects a society-wide problem.

 

REPORTER:  To say it is reflective of society is to dismiss the extent of the problem though, isn't it? Because the problem is much bigger in the military than the real world.

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS: We are acting aggressively on the problem so the furthest thing we are doing is dismissing it. What we are saying is that we recognise that is part of a larger piece. The piece that we can act on is the piece in the army and that's what we are acting directly on.

 

None of that is any consolation to John Johnson.

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: Lividity is running down the left side of her body, which clearly implicates that she was lying on her left side when she died.

 

REPORTER: Not on her back?

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: Not on her back, like she was found.

 

For him and his family the search for answers goes on. Every piece of evidence they have had to be forced out of the army using freedom of information requests.

 

REPORTER: So to have to apply constantly under freedom of information to be subjected to rounds and rounds of paperwork, just to find out the basics, is that how it is?

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS: Information that is available to them under the law and policy should be forthcoming.

 

REPORTER: But if it hasn't been?

 

BRIGADIER – GENERAL JEFF PHILLIPS: That is a mistake that should be corrected.

 

Dr Johnson believes the small fire that burned next to daughter's body is evidence that someone tried to cover up her slaying. But the army says there's no evidence to back that.

 

ARMY DOCUMENT: “the fire inside the tent resulted from PFC Johnson setting some papers on fire. She used an accelerant to ignite several pages that she had ripped out of a notebook, which is believed to have been a diary….”

 

The army investigators also claim that LaVena's behaviour prior to her death, pointed to suicide. But her own company commander's statement suggested otherwise.

 

COMMANDER’S STATEMENT: "This soldier was clearly happy and seemingly very healthy physically and emotionally."

 

With no suicide note, no recovered bullet, no significant gunshot residue on her hands and injuries the Johnson's believe were caused by an attacker, they decided to push on with their own inquiries.

 

NEWS REPORTER: News Force taking you behind the scenes of the investigation into the death of a local soldier. The death of Private LaVena Johnson is clouded in controversy and allegations of a cover-up.

 

The Johnsons had LaVena's body exhumed and an independent autopsy conducted by Missouri state officials. But it failed to provide conclusive answers.

 

DR MARY CASE, MISSOURI CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER: This examination does not demonstrate any evidence of an assault. But you can't eliminate sexual activity by an examination of an adult person. If there's not injury, that doesn't mean there hasn't been sexual activity.

 

REPORTER:  So you can't rule it out?

 

DR MARY CASE: You can't rule it out.

 

With the military having failed to conduct a rape test at the time of her death, there was little more that could be done. Nine months after LaVena's death, the Defence Force finalised its report, officially concluding that she committed suicide, and that the case be closed.

 

PETER DIACZUK, FORENSIC SCIENTIST: You know, look how the dripping looks like this would have been in the other direction. So the implication here is that when this event took place the leg was in the reverse position.

 

Peter Diaczuk and Nick Petraco are forensic scientists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York. Dateline approached them to take an independent look at the LaVena Johnson case. After reviewing the evidence they say they understand why the Johnsons doubt the military's findings.

 

REPORTER: Is this in your mind, a suicide?

 

PETER DIACZUK: That conclusion I believe is premature at this point. It is one of the potential conclusions but to say definitively I don't see enough compelling evidence taken overall to state that it is in fact a suicide. I think that is one of the possibilities.

 

Both have concerns about evidence that appears missed or missing, including the failure to test if she had been sexually assaulted.

 

REPORTER: They said it wasn't done because she was clothed. Is that enough to say no, you don't need to?

 

NICK PETRACO, FORENSIC SCIENTIST: That really doesn't matter. People can be dressed and undressed etcetera. So in fact she had some burning, some possible burning on her skin, on her leg, and not apparent burning on the clothing, might mean something happened with her clothing off. So these are the things you want to check. That's why you automatically check these things to eliminate the possibility of them having happened or not.

 

ANN WRIGHT: I think that there are so many unanswered questions about LaVena's death - how her body was found in a tent, how she able to kill herself, set herself on fire, set the tent on fire? I understand so little investigation was done at the scene itself.

 

Tragically, according to Ann Wright, the Johnson's story is not unique. Of the more than 115 female service member deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 16 have been ruled suicides.

 

ANN WRIGHT: I've talked to four of the families of those women and they maintain that their daughter/sister did not commit suicide, and question very strongly what did go on. And all of them are getting no cooperation from the military, from the army. They are being told there's nothing else to investigate. "We're finished our investigation and we are no re-opening it."

 

For the Johnsons each day is a struggle. Their daughter's bedroom remains untouched but there are no photos of her anywhere in the house.

 

LINDA JOHNSON: When she left me in such a horrible, horrible way it hurts me even more to look at that smile.

 

REPORTER: It's been a hell of a lot to go through, how do you keep doing this?

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: You know I think originally this was tough, but I am on a mission. You know, somebody murdered my daughter. I couldn't give up on my baby. So I'm going to fight this until I get justice for her.

 

REPORTER: What's justice in your view?

 

DR JOHN JOHNSON: They need to make some changes in their attitude about how they treat women in the military because just getting past LaVena, that's not all for me. It's going to be a fight now to see if we can get some changes in there.

 

 

Reporter/Camera

GINNY STEIN

 

Researchers

MELANIE MORRISON

CLARE GAVIN

 

Editor

WAYNE LOVE

 

Producer

AARON THOMAS

 

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN