Heartbreak surrounded the Christ the Rock Community Church again Saturday. The patriotic procession that followed the body of a beloved Miami Garden’s fallen hero from a funeral home in Hollywood to the church in Cooper City arrived about 9 a.m.
When U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson’s body was inside a closed flag-covered casket, nothing could comfort his aunt Sharon Wright. She wore a military green U.S. Army T-shirt and sat on a bench outside weeping.
“Everybody is just crying. Everyone loved him,” said Johnson’s sister Terkema McGriff, who described him as a “perfect big brother,” and said “he was very respectful, very helpful.”
After a public partial viewing Friday, the family returned to the church for the funeral service. The military escorted the body of the 25-year-old father — who was formerly known by thousands on social media as “Wheelie King 305” for his love of cycling on one wheel.
The body of the fallen soldier with the U.S. team of “Bush Hogs” from the 3rd Special Forces Group arrived at Dover Air Force Base Oct. 7. Johnsonhad completed one deployment and was beginning another when he died in Africa.
The morticians and staff at the Dover Air Force Base are trained to carefully wash the remnants of war away from the bodies of the fallen. They are trained to meticulously prepare them before they are placed in the casket.
There have been many improvements made to honor the fallen at Dove Air Force Base after The Washington Post reported in 2011 that Air Force officials incinerated the remains of some U.S. soldiers and dumped them in a Virginia landfill.
Experts from the FBI usually examine the fingerprints of the diseased. The mortuary has a database. DNA samples are compared and there is an autopsy. But when the injuries are severe and a reconstruction isn’t feasible, there is a different process.
The morticians wrap the remains. The staff pins the uniform on top. They shine the buttons and pay attention to every detail when they fold the flag over the casket.
Despite all of the obstacles faced in Africa, the military returned Johnson’s remains to his family in Miami Tuesday.
His pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, his 6-year-old daughter Ah’leesya and his 2-year-old son La David Jr. waited for a Delta Airlines jet at Miami International Airport. His aunt Cowanda Jones-Johnson — who raised him as her own son — was inconsolable.
When Johnson’s mother, Samara Johnson, died in 1999, she and her husband, his paternal figure, were there for him when he was a 5-year-old boy in mourning.
La David Johnson stayed out of trouble in a neighborhood where gang-related shootings are not uncommon. About the time his remains arrived to MIA Tuesday a shooting left a man wounded near Carol City High School, Johnson’s alma mater. On the day of his funeral, a shooting killed a 26-year-old man.
Johnson graduated from high school in 2010 and worked at a Walmart in Pembroke Pines, where co-workers said he was known as “produce boy” or “Tee.” He was a gym and church regular. Like his uncle, whom he referred to as his dad, he chose not to smoke or drink. Friends said he also didn’t experiment with marijuana or drugs. He enjoyed fishing.
His relationship with Myeshia Manuel, whom he met when he was 6 and wed Aug. 22, 2014, was so meaningful to him that he eventually tattooed her name across his chest. His childhood sweetheart is set to deliver his third child in January.
His three children will likely grow up asking questions. His days serving along some of the most elite warriors in the world will likely make them proud.
Johnson’s family, the Pentagon and the White House are waiting for the results of an ongoing investigation. His relatives want to know what happened to him during the 48 hours he was in an African desert. They want to know what his last moments were like.
Much of what happened remains secret. Johnson was serving with Green Berets when a group of Islamic militants ambushed them Oct. 4 in Niger, where ISIS affiliates like Boko Haram operate raising funds through a black market of gold from illegal mines in the area.
What continues to trouble those who love Johnson is that he didn’t leave in the French helicopters during the first evacuation. The ambush also killed Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.
Dozens of questions are also torturing his friends:
“Did he die alone?”
“How did he end up so far away from where the ambush happened?”
“Did jihadist torture him and take him there?”
“Did he run there wounded?”
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Thursday U.S., French and Nigerien forces didn’t leave the battlefield until they recovered Johnson’s body. Nigerien forces found his body Oct. 6. The U.S. military returned his remains to the U.S. a day later.
About 10 days after his body arrived to Dover, the military delivered his body to Miami-Dade. Before Johnson’s pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, met his casket at MIA, President Donald Trump spoke to her in the car. He said Johnson knew what he had signed up for.
The words offended his family.
Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, said Trump did the best he could during the phone call and his words were twisted. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who was with the family when Trump called, disagreed. She was enraged and told reporters nationwide Trump was insensitive.
Kelly said Wilson was behaving like an “empty barrel” making noise. Wilson defended herself. The White House defended Kelly. The political conflict snowballed. But at the church Friday, no one cared about politics. Honoring the American hero was the priority.
Mike Pacheco, who wore a U.S. veteran hat, never got to meet Johnson. He watched the images of his widow mourning his death at MIA and he showed up to the church to pay his respects. He wants his family to know they are not alone.
Outside of the church, Pacheco leaned down, covered his face with one fist and cried by himself. He said he wants the hero to rest in peace.
Johnson’s casket made its way from the Fred Hunter’s Funeral Home, 6301 Taft St., in Hollywood to the church at 11000 Stirling Rd., in Cooper City, for a final service. The interment will be at the Hollywood Memorial Gardens, 3001 N. 72 St.
Police officers and deputies from the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office will escort the processions. The Hollywood Police Department and Hollywood Fire Rescue will also be honoring Johnson.
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