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Seeking answers to why they died
Trailer for the upcoming Midtown Films documentary “LaVena Johnson — The Silent Truth”, questioning whether there is a cover up of the rape and murder of women soldiers. (Warning: Video contains graphic images of the crime scene)
Stories of women killed in combat need to be told, Colonie vet says
By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer
TimesUnion.com – Saturday, December 12, 2009
COLONIE, NY — The military’s investigation into how Staff Sgt. Amy Tirador died in Iraq has hit home for someone who never knew her: Noonie Fortin, an Army veteran who has spent decades documenting women at war and the sometimes murky circumstances surrounding their deaths.
Fortin has chronicled the stories of American women who have died in combat zones since the Civil War from her home just miles from where Tirador grew up. Fortin’s proud, tragic profiles are now published on a Web site bearing her name, and provide information gathered from military sources, media reports and, sometimes, family members. Pictures of the fallen accompany most of the modern day snippets, which also tell how, where and when the servicewomen were killed.
An author of 10 books and a public speaker, Fortin comes at the project from a patriotic point of view. She says she’s archiving the casualties for history. But the retired first sergeant says she knows the anguish and stress of war, and questions military reports she considers unbelievable or incomplete. And there’s been more than a few of those from Iraq, Fortin said in her Colonie home.
“I do it because these women’s stories need to be out there,” said Fortin, author of “Women at Risk: We Also Served,” which tells the stories of more than 60 military women.
On her web site, Fortin names 118 women, ages 18 to 54, who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 28 lost supporting military operations in Afghanistan. The military has classified at least 45 of the female deaths in Iraq as noncombat incidents, she notes. Of those, 13, including Tirador, died from gunshot wounds, while many of the others were involved in vehicle accidents or had health problems.
The latest entry in Fortin’s gallery is Tirador, an Army interrogator who spoke Arabic and worked in military intelligence. Tirador, 29, grew up in Colonie and was shot in the back of the head while walking to an 8 p.m. work shift on the U.S. military base Camp Caldwell in eastern Iraq, her mother has said. More than five weeks after her death, the military has released few details about it, only that it is investigating whether Tirador was killed, committed suicide or died in an accident.
Ann Wright, a vocal advocate for military women from Arkansas who retired as an Army colonel in protest of the Iraq war in 2003, called Fortin’s Web site “the only one that has information on every woman, military or civilian, killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Women are increasingly serving amid warfare, weapons and combat stress, Wright and Fortin say. In those environments, relationships can sometimes end in rape, violence or even murder, they say.
More than 2,900 sexual assaults were reported in the military in 2008, 8 percent more than 2007, according to a March report by the U.S. Defense Department. About 63 percent of those involved rape or aggravated assault, the report states. It says 251 of the incidents occurred in combat areas, with 141 in Iraq and 22 in Afghanistan.
The deaths of several women in Iraq and at least one in Afghanistan are suspicious, Fortin said.
She cites the 2005 case of Army Pvt. LaVena L. Johnson as the most striking. The 19-year-old Missouri woman died in Balad after being raped, beaten, shot and set on fire, said her father, who has pictures and documents from the incident. The Army has ruled Johnson’s death a suicide from a self-inflicted rifle shot. The case is profiled in the forthcoming documentary, “LaVena Johnson — The Silent Truth,” due for release in 2010. It examines whether there is an army coverup of the rape and murder of women soldiers.
“Is this another Pat Tillman-style cover-up?” Fortin wrote on her Web site about the death of Johnson.
She also tells the story of how the military had blamed the 2007 death of Spc. Kamisha J. Block on friendly fire, only to later admit that her ex-boyfriend shot the 20-year-old five times in Baghdad before killing himself. “The Army and Pentagon lied to the family and press,” Fortin said.
Here are other cases about which she questions the official military accounts:
Army Pvt. Tina Priest, who had claimed she was raped in Iraq, died from a non-combat gunshot wound to the chest in Taji in 2006.
Pvt. Hannah L. Gunterman McKinney, who died after reportedly falling out of a vehicle in Taji.
Maj. Gloria D. Davis and Sgt. Denise A. Lannaman, who the Army says died of noncombat gunshot wounds, but according to reports may have been involved in shady deals with private military contractors.
Army Spc. Ciara Durkin, who had told her parents to press for answers if anything happened to her while she was deployed in Afghanistan, Fortin says. In September 2007, someone shot her once in the head near a church at Bagram Airfield. The military reportedly has said she committed suicide. Family members believe she was killed.
Fortin also details the shooting deaths of three women supporting the Iraq war from Bahrain, including Navy Master-at-Arms Anamarie Sannicolas Camacho, 20, and Genesia Mattril Gresham, 19, who were killed by a male sailor in 2007 in what is described as a jilted boyfriend’s shooting spree.
Tirador is not the only female translator to die overseas. Spc. Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, killed herself in Iraq in 2003 after saying that she didn’t like the way interrogations were done, Fortin says.
Tirador is the first woman from the Capital Region to die in a war zone since a nurse from Albany named Marilyn Lourdes Allan was shot to death in 1967 by a decorated Army captain in Vietnam, Fortin said. Allan is featured in Fortin’s book “Women at Risk.” She was working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and had dated her killer, who committed suicide after shooting her three times, according to a Times Union report.
Fortin grew up in Lansingburgh and served in the Army Reserve from 1975 to 1997. Military investigations like the one underway in the Tirador case can take four to six months, she said.
“I feel that the military could do more,” Fortin said, referring the military’s handling of the investigations of noncombat deaths . “Will they? Not unless they get pushed.” (click HERE for original article)