Family, veterans remember sergeant slain in Niger; No mention of controversy
By CARLI TEPROFF | The Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 21, 2017
Three soldiers dressed in military fatigues marched up to Sgt. La David Terrence Johnson's flag-draped casket, stopped, saluted and marched away.
The solemn scene played out several times Friday night as dozens of people – some who knew him and some who did not – paid their respects to the fallen Miami Gardens soldier, who died Oct. 4 with three other American servicemen in an ambush attack in Niger in West Africa.
"I can only imagine the pain his family is feeling right now," said Vietnam veteran L. C. Deal, who wore a black hat embossed with "Vietnam Veteran" and an olive green dress military jacket. "I came here for the family."
On Friday, a public viewing was held at Christ The Rock Church in Cooper City, where a funeral with military honors will be held for the slain soldier at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Inside the sanctuary, people waited in line as pictures of Johnson – smiling, dressed in fatigues and holding his children – flashed on two screens.
But no one had a picture of him on a shirt – a request Johnson's pregnant widow Myeshia made on Facebook, saying her husband, a 25-year-old father of two, would never want his face on a R.I.P. shirt.
A heart-shaped wreath made of red roses flanked the casket. Gospel music played in the background as people hugged, cried and prayed. His family, wearing red shirts, sat in the front row.
Before going into the church, Melvin Harris, a Korean war veteran, said, "I came to pay my respects to my brother."
He said he planned to walk up to the casket, salute and deliver a message.
"I am going to say rest in peace, my brother," said Harris, who served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1953. "Thank you for your loyal and heroic service."
Terkiya McGriff, who said she was Johnson's sister on his dad's side, said she had spoken to him on FaceTime before he left for Niger. She said she is having a hard time processing that he is gone.
"I'm not going to ever have my brother anymore," she said.
Sgt. La David T. Johnson
There was no mention Friday of the war of words between U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, and President Donald Trump, a saga that began Tuesday night when Wilson said Trump made insensitive comments to Johnson's widow in a condolence call.
Trump had called Myeshia as she, Wilson and family members were in a limo heading to Miami International Airport Tuesday afternoon to meet Johnson's casket. In the call, which was put on speakerphone, Trump said "he knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens it hurts anyway," according to Wilson, a longtime family friend of the Johnsons and their Congressional representative.
Trump said Wilson lied about what he said, saying he never used those words. Johnson's family has backed up Wilson's account of the call.
The controversy escalated Friday after the South Florida Sun Sentinel released video from a 2015 ceremony honoring a pair of slain FBI agents that showed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was wrong when he accused Wilson on Thursday of bragging about securing money for the new FBI field office in Miramar during the ceremony.
Those at the viewing were focused on Johnson.
Valerie La Branche said she came to say goodbye to a man she saw grew up and called her "God brother."
"He always said he wanted to be a G.I. Joe," La Branche said with a smile. "He was a leader."
Sallie Meadows, who said he called her "auntie," recalled how as a child Johnson would run her over with his power wheels and always played with G.I. Joes.
"He was a lovable, humble, peaceful person," she said.
In the days after learning Johnson was killed, Wilson established the Role Model Army Sgt. La David Johnson Scholarship to ensure Johnson's three children – 6-year-old Ah'leeysa, 2-year-old La David Jr. and a third child, a daughter, due in January – will have money for college. By Friday, just over $615,000 had been raised.
Fittingly, with the darkened sky as a backdrop, the hearse carrying Johnson's casket – led by police motorcycles and cars – passed by a giant American flag attached to a fire truck's ladder. It waved in the wind as the hearse drove away.
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