Heartbreak surrounded Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City.
U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson’s body was inside a closed flag-covered casket, and nothing could comfort his aunt Sharon Wright Friday. She wore a military green U.S. Army T-shirt and sat on a bench outside weeping.
Wright couldn’t see the body of the 25-year-old Miami Gardens’ native who was formerly known by thousands on social media as “Wheelie King 305.” It was a partial viewing.
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.
The morticians and staff at the Dover Air Force Base are trained to carefully wash the remnants of war — blood and sand — away from the bodies of the fallen. They are trained to meticulously prepare them before they are placed in the casket.
Experts from the FBI usually examine the fingerprints of the diseased. DNA samples are compared and there is an autopsy. The mortuary has a database. When the injuries are severe and a reconstruction isn’t feasible, there is a different process.
There have been many improvements made to honor the fallen at Dove Air 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.
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. were waiting 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.
Johnson’s family and The Pentagon 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.
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?”
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 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, after the ambush that also killed Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.
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, his body was in Miami-Dade. Before Johnson’s pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, met his casket at MIA, President Donald Trump spoke to her. He said Johnson knew what he had signed up for.
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 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.
Pacheco leaned down and cried outside of the church by himself.
Johnson’s casket returned to the Fred Hunter’s Funeral Home, 6301 Taft St., in Hollywood. At 8 a.m. on Saturday, the casket will make its way back to the church at 11000 Stirling Rd., in Cooper City. 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.
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