Sgt La David Johnson: soldier at the center of dispute over Trump remarks

The 25-year-old South Florida native who was killed in Niger has been put in the spotlight after Trump reportedly made insensitive comments to his widow

Sgt La David T Johnson, the fallen soldier at the centre of the controversy over insensitive comments Donald Trump reportedly offered his widow, was a 25-year-old south Florida native with a love of bicycle stunts.

He’d been assigned to the Second Battalion, Third Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed to Niger as part of an “advise and assist” mission, according to the US army Special Operations Command.

But on 7 October, Johnson was among four soldiers killed after their patrol was leaving a meeting with tribal leaders on the Niger-Mali border. They were ambushed by up to 50 militants believed to be linked to Islamic State.

(October 4, 2017)  Soldiers killed in Niger

Four US army special forces troops and five soldiers from Niger die in an ambush during a joint patrol in the south-west of the country. 

(October 16, 2017)  The row begins

Asked why he has not spoken about the incident, Trump discusses his calls to bereaved families, saying: “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls.”

(October 17, 2017) 

Trump drags White House chief of staff John Kelly into the developing row, saying: “You could ask Gen Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”, a reference to the death of Kelly's son in Afghanistan.

(October 17, 2017) 

Trump phones the widow of Sgt La David Johnson and reportedly says Johnson “knew what he was signing up for”, according to Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswomen who heard the call.  

(October 17, 2017) 

Wilson criticizes Trump's reported remark as "so insensitive". In response, Trump claims Wilson's account is “totally fabricated” but Johnson's mother supports Wilson's version of events.

(October 18, 2017) 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Kelly is “disgusted and frustrated” by the politicization of his son's death – even though it was Trump who first mentioned him.

(October 19, 2017) Enter John Kelly

Kelly delivers a rebuke to critics of Trump in an emotional press conference but fails to acknowledge that the controversy began after Trump attacked Obama.

(October 20, 2017) 

Sanders says it would be “highly inappropriate” to question Kelly, a four-star general, a comment that causes outcry in itself.

(October 21, 2017) 

On the day of Sgt Johnson’s funeral, Trump refuses to let the matter rest, referring to Wilson as "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson" in a tweet

(October 23, 2017) 

Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt Johnson, says Trump's condolence call "made me cry even worse". Trump disputes her account immediately after the interview aires.

They represent the first known US casualties under hostile fire in the country, where around 800 US troops are deployed, primarily to support local forces combating extremist groups such as Boko Haram, Isis and al-Qaida in the Maghreb.

US assisted forces are tasked with disrupting the so-called rat line, a trail between Niger and Mali used by militants trafficking in black market goods.

The department of defense initially withheld news of Johnson’s death in “hopes he would be found alive”. Officials said Johnson had activated his military beacon, and the military had been able to track him before the signal faded.

It remains unclear if Johnson, the ambush’s fourth confirmed US casualty, was killed during the initial fight or was first captured. Officials have not said how he died.

Shortly before Johnson’s body arrived at Miami airport on Tuesday, his wife Myeshia Johnson received the condolence call during which Trump reportedly told the grieving widow her husband “knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway”.

The comments, vigorously denied by Trump, were made public by Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson who had been in the car with Johnson’s widow. Wilson’s description of the call was later backed up by the soldier’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who also heard the call on speakerphone.

“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson told the Washington Post.

According to Wilson, Trump was unable to to recall the name of the fallen soldier during his conversation with Johnson’s widow.

“She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part,” Wilson told MSNBC.

“It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”

According to the military journal Task & Purpose, Johnson enlisted in the army in January 2014 as a wheeled vehicle mechanic.

His awards and decorations include the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Army Parachutist Badge, the Army Air Assault Badge, the Driver and Mechanic Badge and the Marksmanship Qualification Badge – Sharpshooter with Rifle.

He leaves behind a wife and two children, whose names were tattooed on his chest. Sgt Johnson’s third child is due in January.

Johnson was known around his Miami Gardens neighborhood as the “Wheelie King” for his love of bicycles and cars. On Facebook, he described himself as just “a dude who loves to ride bikes!”

Myeshia said her husband, who was known as “T,” had always planned for a career in the military. “For him not to be with us anymore is just heartbreaking and devastating because I don’t know what I’m gonna do without him,” she told a Miami station. “He was everything to us.”

The three other soldiers killed when the patrol was ambushed have been identified as Staff Sgts Bryan C Black, Jeremiah W Johnson and Dustin M Wright.

Wright was a 29-year-old North Carolina native from a family with ties to the military reportedly dating back to the War of 1812.

“To our records, we had not lost a single member until Dustin. That’s 205 years, that’s a good run,” his brother Will told WRAL-TV on 15 October. “So, it’s been great to hear that history and share that history and if once every 205 years this is a price we pay, then that’s what it takes.”

Black, 35, from Washington state, joined the army in 2009 and served as a Green Beret medic. His family remembered him “as a natural leader, helping his fellow soldiers where they struggled and maximizing their talents”.

The final US soldier killed in the ambush was 39-year-old Jeremiah Johnson from Springboro, Ohio. He is remembered as “as a red, white and blue, rock-solid American with a great heart” and left behind a wife and two young daughters.

• This article was amended on 7 November 2017. An earlier version said Sgt La David T Johnson was a Green Beret. Johnson was attached to a Special Forces unit but he was not a Green Beret.


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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