MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – The woman who raised a Miami Gardens man who died in an ambush in Niger last October still has many questions about the events that led up to his death.
Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that a military investigation concluded that Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson died in a hail of gunfire. The results of the investigation dispelled rumors that Johnson had captured alive or killed at close range.
According to the military report, Johnson was hit as many as 18 times as he took cover in thick brush, fleeing Islamic militants who had just killed three of his comrades.
On Monday Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who raised Johnson after his biological mother died, told CNN that she first learned of the latest investigation results on Facebook. She also said the military has not told her why her son’s remains weren’t found at the same time as the bodies of his comrades.
“I want the truth behind the situation from day one. If we would have, we wouldn’t be sitting here because we would have closure and we could move on from here. But there is no closure. My mom always used to tell us, if you tell one lie, you have to tell so many lies to cover up that one little one. And if they would have told us he did get killed in the line of duty and he was captured, we would have understood” she said.
Jones-Johnson said her family is heartbroken and is still grieving over the loss of their hero.
“He loved cooking just like me. He loved baking just like me. We would do each other’s hair. He would cut hair in Africa, do the little boys hair. He was something special and is truly missed,” she said.
Johnson, 25, was part of a 12-member Army special forces unit that was accompanying 30 Nigerien forces when they were attacked in a densely wooded area by as many as 50 militants traveling by vehicle and carrying small arms and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Johnson was struck from a distance by a volley of machine gun rounds, according to the U.S. officials, who said he was firing back as he and two Nigerien soldiers tried to escape.
All told, four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien troops were killed in the ambush. Two U.S. and eight Nigerien troops were wounded.
The bodies of three U.S. soldiers were located on the day of the attack, but not Johnson’s remains. The gap in time led to questions about whether Johnson was killed in the assault and not found, or if he was taken away by the enemy.
The officials familiar with the report’s conclusions said that during the attack, Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers tried to get to a vehicle to escape, but were unable to do so, became separated from the others and were shot as they were running for safety.
The report concluded that Johnson, who was athletic and a runner, was in the lead and got the farthest away, seeking cover in the brush. Officials said there were a number of enemy shells around Johnson, and evidence that he appeared to fight to the end. His boots and other equipment were later stolen, but he was still wearing his uniform.
As news of the ambush came out, the U.S. military sent in rescue teams to search for Johnson, not making his status public in the hope he might have gotten away and was still alive and hiding. The Pentagon only acknowledged that he was missing after his body was located two days later by local forces.
The Pentagon has declined to release details about the exact mission of the commando team. U.S. officials have previously said that the joint U.S.-Niger patrol had been asked to assist a second American commando team hunting for a senior Islamic State member, who also had former ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The team had been asked to go to a location where the insurgent had last been seen, and collect intelligence.
After completing that mission, the troops stopped in a village for a short time to get food and water, then left. The U.S. military believes someone in the village may have tipped off attackers to the presence of U.S. commandoes and Nigerien forces in the area, setting in motion the ambush.
U.S. special operations forces have been routinely working with Niger’s forces, helping them to improve their abilities to fight extremists in the region. That effort has increased in recent years, the Pentagon said.
The three other Americans killed were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia. Black and Wright were Army Special Forces. Johnson and Johnson were not commandos.
Johnson’s combat death led to a political squabble between President Donald Trump and a Democratic congresswoman from Florida after Trump told Johnson’s pregnant widow in a phone call that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., was riding with Johnson’s family to meet the body and heard the call on speakerphone. The spat grew to include Trump’s chief of staff, who called Wilson an “empty barrel” making noise.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)