More than 140 U.S. military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the military has officially placed nearly 50 of these deaths in the ambiguous “non-combat” category (Democracy Now!, 7/23/08). Some women’s veterans and advocacy groups, such as VETWOW (Veteran Women Organizing Women), say at least 20 of these non-combat deaths are suspicious, and their families are speaking out to some degree, questioning the military’s official explanations.
In at least two of the 20 deaths under scrutiny, the military has tried to strongarm media that were questioning the official ruling —in one case threatening to pull military advertising if a story were to run.
During a decade of war, the old observation that truth is war’s first casualty has been reconfirmed. Perhaps most notoriously, the military was caught lying that Army Ranger Pat Tillman had died from enemy fire, when in fact his own unit had cut him (Nation, 5/25/09). The Tillman family accused the Department of Defense of covering up the real reason of death so as to protect the military’s image as it aggressively sought volunteers for the “Global War on Terror.”
And there is no doubt the military was and is seeking both genders to enlist. In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel. Today, that number is 14.3 percent, or roughly 200,000 women (Institute for Women’s Leadership, 6/18/10).
On October 18, 2008, 22-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Stacy “Annie” Dryden of North Canton, Ohio, was reportedly found dead in a portable latrine on Al-Asad airbase in Afghanistan. The military told the family that the day before Dryden’s body was found, she had engaged in a friendly wrestling match with a male Navy sailor, and later died from an inadvertent head injury caused by the horseplay.
Scott Dryden, the corporal’s father, didn’t buy the military’s story. But when he began to ask questions, “casualty assistance officers” from the Marines pressured him to keep his mouth shut.
“They said: ‘Don’t tell anyone anything or give anyone anything about this. We’ll take care of this,’” he recalls. “I felt threatened over it.”
Benjamin Duer, a Canton Repository journalist who reported (7/23/09) that Dryden had died after “voluntarily grappling” with the sailor, told Extra! that casualty assistance officers urged him not to speak to Scott Dryden, saying that the father did not have a close relationship with his daughter.
Scott Dryden says this is “hogwash.” He has the global phone records showing he spoke to his daughter regularly, as recently as the day before the deadly scuffle.
Increasingly suspicious, the father pressed military investigators for more answers. His persistence paid off as a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigator gave him a far different account of events.
The NCIS investigator told Scott Dryden the Navy sailor had told his daughter, “Marines aren’t shit.” Enraged, Corporal Dryden—whose nickname was the “Fiery Angel” —rushed the sailor and knocked the much larger rival to the ground. The sailor jumped to his feet, grabbed Dryden and body-slammed her. Her head whiplashed onto concrete.
She apparently died the next day from the head contusion. The Navy sailor has never been charged, even though NCIS admitted to this reporter earlier this year that the “friendly wrestling match” was actually a hostile confrontation (Clevescene, 1/26/11). Although alerted to the NCIS’s new version of events, the Canton Repository never corrected its published version of what happened.
Small-town newspapers aren’t the only media to be pushed around by the military, as witnessed by Essence magazine when it tried to report on the mysterious death of U.S. Army Private LaVena Johnson.
Johnson is recalled as a loving 19-year-old who played the violin. But in 2005, while stationed at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, she reportedly took her M16 and ended a bright life. The military said Johnson was distraught after receiving a break-up email from her boyfriend of two months (Toward Freedom, 7/14/11).
Starting at her wake, however, the Johnson family began doubting the military’s explanation of death. Abrasions and scratch marks were on the upper parts of her body. Johnson’s commanding officer, Capt. David Woods, told military investigators that before her apparent suicide, she was always smiling, and he did not see any changes in her behavior. Two ballistics experts, Donald Marion and Cyril Wecht, told the family Johnson’s bullet wound was not consistent with an M16, but looked more like a wound caused by a 9mm pistol.
Johnson’s family believes she was raped and murdered by a contractor—her body was found in an empty tent owned by Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Haliburton—and the story of her being a distraught jilted girlfriend simply a cover.
Essence was preparing to run a story on Johnson’s death in its February 2006 issue. But the Army, one of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, threatened to pull its advertising dollars. The magazine and the Army reached a compromise: Essence could run the article, but the Army would withhold its ads for that issue, according to the account executive editor Vanessa Bush gave to NYU journalism students (Alter-Net, 5/29/07).
60 Minutes and ABC News also worked Johnson’s story, both sending multiple investigative teams to her family home in St. Louis, and 60 Minutes even helped pay to have Johnson’s body disinterred for a second autopsy, according to John Johnson, LaVena’s father. But neither ran a story about her death.
“No one will touch LaVena’s story with a 10-foot pole,” says Johnson, referring to corporate media. “The military sure as heck don’t want to admit black female soldiers are being raped and murdered because they’re having a hard time recruiting and retaining black females.”
VETWOW director Susan Avila-Smith, who represents 3,000 victims of what is called Military Sexual Trauma, believes the military will attempt to challenge or manipulate the media “in any situation that portrays them in a bad light”.
“The military tries extremely hard to keep everything internal,” says Avila-Smith. “So extreme that if they put the same effort to fix the problem they are covering up, many would be resolved.”
Trying to Make a Rape Story Not Happen
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was just days away, and Barbara Wharton was on edge as her daughter’s Army battalion stationed in Kuwait prepared to go to war. That’s when Wharton got an unexpected call from her daughter’s husband.
Her daughter, said the husband, had been tied up, beaten and raped by a fellow U.S. soldier. Wharton was immediately on the phone, begging her daughter’s commanding officers to send her traumatized daughter home or to a base in Germany. Incredibly, they still wanted her daughter to join the invasion.
“She was told to shape up, get back in line and forget about it,” says Wharton. And even though her daughter was found bound and gagged, “they thought she was joking,” she says.
Wharton, desperate for help, decided to reach out to the media. That’s when Wharton and the media she spoke to became the enemy.
When ABC’s Good Morning America wanted Wharton on the show for an interview (12/8/08), she received a call from an officer at the Pentagon, someone she had never met before. She was bewildered as to how he knew she was going to appear on the morning show.
“They wanted to know what they could do to keep me off the show,” says Wharton.
Charlie Gibson, Good Morning America’s host at the time, told Wharton the Pentagon was also pressuring ABC not to run the story. He said the Pentagon had called ABC executives and wanted to know what they could do to make the story not happen. “We just laughed in their face,” Wharton says Gibson told her.
“I felt it unbelievable that they would try stop from me from going on the air. This is how corrupt the military can be,” she says. As for her daughter, whom Wharton asked not to be named for this story, she’s still in therapy and has been diagnosed by the VA with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “She will never be who she was,” her mother says.
John Lasker is a freelance journalist in Columbus, Ohio.