UPDATED: 9:37 a.m. EST, October 24 — The soldier at the center of a controversy between his widow, a congresswoman and the president was being remembered as a “hero” by a survivor of an attack in West Africa that killed four and injured two others earlier this month.
“He was the best kid you could ask for,” the survivor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an investigation into the Niger ambush, told ABC News. “The guy is a true war hero. I really want his wife and kids to know that.”
Sgt. La David Johnson was killed in the ambush on October 4. His fellow fallen soldiers were evacuated while Johnson’s body remained in Niger for about 48 hours, raising a number of questions in the aftermath of the deadly siege.
While the president had large stayed silent on the attack, he was thrust into the forefront of the story when Democratic Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson announced to the media that he told Johnson’s widow that her husband “knew what he was signing up for.” Wilson accused the president of being insensitive to a Gold Star family. The president denied making the remarks, but the White House ultimately confirmed he said them.
The president took to Twitter on Monday to call Johnson’s widow a liar after she verified during a morning news show the nature of the would-be condolence call.
The military and the government did not prevent the widow of a fallen soldier killed in action from seeing the body of her husband before he was buried, the Pentagon said Monday evening. Such a decision is typically left up to the discretion of a military mortician or a private funeral home.
Those facts run counter to the narrative given by Myeshia Johnson, whose husband died after Islamic State-affiliated militants killed him during an ambush in Niger on October 4.
“Viewing remains is a personal and private decision,” Pentagon spokesperson Laura Ochoa told NewsOne in an exclusive statement. “The remains are released to the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition (PADD)’s and private funeral home, where at that point, the PADD may decide to view the remains.”
A PADD can be whomever the service member has designated as someone “entitled to direct the disposition of the remains,” according to the military’s Mortuary Affairs Operations. That person could range from a widow to a different family member to a friend, Ochoa said.
It was neither immediately clear who, if anyone, Johnson had designated as his PADD nor if that was how Johnson was apparently prevented from seeing her husband’s body.
What was clear, though, was widow’s claim that she would not be allowed to have some sense of closure by seeing him.
“They told me that he’s in a severe, a severe wrap like I won’t be able to see him. I need to see him so I will know that that is my husband. I don’t know nothing, they won’t show me a finger, a hand,” Johnson said Monday on “Good Morning America,” two days after her husband’s funeral in his hometown of Miami. “I know my husband’s body from head to toe. And they won’t let me see anything. I don’t know what’s in that box, it could be empty for all I know. But I need, I need to see my husband. I haven’t seen him since he came home.”
The discrepancy likely compounded the added tension created by the subsequent condolence call to Johnson from the president, who was accused of callously saying her husband “knew what he was signing up for” before he was killed. Adding insult to literal injury, Johnson also said the president didn’t even know her husband’s name.
“That made me cry even worse,” Johnson said.
The president would go on to deny the accusations, start a nasty Twitter war of words with Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and then ultimately label Johnson’s widow a liar. The White House would later confirm the president’s insensitive comments.
Johnson’s body was left in Niger for more than 48 hours after the other fallen and injured soldiers in the attack were evacuated.
Without mentioning her name, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford hinted that Johnson’s widow deserved to have her concerns addressed.
“We owe the families and the American people transparency and we intend to deliver just that,” he said Monday afternoon during a press briefing about the ambush.