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Breaking the Silence

October 19, 2013

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Can a new campaign persuade the Pentagon to reconsider its attitude?

LAVENA JOHNSON was a bright 19-year-old from Missouri who joined the army in 2005 to earn money for college. She was posted to Iraq, where eight weeks later she was apparently raped and murdered.

Despite an autopsy report and photographs that revealed her to have suffered a broken nose, loose teeth, a black eye, burns on her genitals caused by lye and a gunshot wound that seemed inconsistent with suicide, the Department of Defence ruled that the young black soldier had killed herself. Petitions to Congress, a documentary film and an investigation by the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute have not persuaded the Pentagon to withdraw its controversial finding of suicide.

Now Nikky Finney, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011, has entered the fray. A black woman born and brought up in South Carolina during the civil-rights era, she was, she says, a “very young witness to good people raising their hands to join critical campaigns for social justice and fairness.” Her father, Ernest Finney junior, is a civil-rights lawyer who in 1994 became the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction.

At public lectures and other venues in her home state, where she now teaches at the University of South Carolina, Ms Finney reads a long poem-in-progress about LaVena Johnson. “There are no warning signs,/ nailed over recruitment doors,/ for 19-year-old Honours students/ who grow up loving the violin,” the poem runs. “ The dotted line you signed, LaVena, should have included the report/ that your

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Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).