Sgt. La David Johnson was a family man first and foremost, and on Saturday that was how the Miami Gardens soldier was remembered before he was laid to rest.
The 25-year-old serviceman drew national attention after a condolence call from President Donald Trump on Tuesday to his grieving widow sparked controversy. But Saturday was about him and his Miami roots as nearly 1,000 mourners gathered at a funeral service in Cooper City.
They remembered a neighborhood boy made motherless young but taken in by his aunt and uncle. They recounted his bicycle tricks, the hot dog cart he used to run, the ambition that led him to enlist and rise quickly in the Army. And, over and over again, they described Johnson as driven and a loving son and husband, dedicated to improving life for his family.
His family, that’s all he talked about … He was really out there making a difference and doing what he loved to do.
Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler, talking about Sgt. La David Johnson
Sgt. Donald Young, one of Johnson’s best friends, recalled their first meeting after they joined the military. After finding out Johnson was from Miami, Young asked, “What made you do this, man?”
“I realized what I had in Miami,” Johnson told him, citing his family as the reason. “I had to make a better life for myself.”
It was a lesson he had learned early from his aunt, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, and uncle, Richard Johnson, who reared him after his mother died when he was 5, said Johnson’s supervisor, Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler.
“His family, that’s all he talked about,” Bohler said. Born and raised in Liberty City, Bohler said he recognized in Johnson a similar ambition.
“I know the obstacles you have to come through to get out of this place,” Bohler said, crying so hard at points he was gasping for air. “He was really out there making a difference and doing what he loved to do.”
Johnson grew up in Miami Gardens, where people on the streets recognized him by his penchant for riding his bike one-wheeled, nicknaming him “Wheelie King.” Before he joined the Army in January 2014, it was where he found a second family, and where he met his childhood sweetheart and future wife, Myeshia.
And it was where, before he was killed Oct. 4 alongside three other American soldiers in an ambush in Niger, he planned to return and raise his son and daughter, as well as another girl, due in January. He had been sent on his second deployment to Africa in August, shortly after his third wedding anniversary.
The controversy over Trump’s words were still fresh when people gathered in the rows of Christ The Rock Church for the second day in a row to honor Johnson. But there was no mention of the president from any of the speakers, including U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, who made the condolence call public.
Instead, she focused on Johnson and the composure of his widow, Myeshia, who Wilson said had moved the nation to tears when she greeted her husband’s remains at Miami International Airport on Tuesday.
“His vow of courage and patriotism will be remembered for generations to come,” she said.
There was only one nod to the circumstances of Johnson’s death, in an opening prayer that asked for “clarity for the circumstances surrounding his death.” Wilson, who has sparred publicly with the president since the call was reported, was among several local and federal officials who attended the service, including Cooper City Mayor Greg Ross, Miami-Dade commissioners Barbara Jordan and José Diaz, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Six of his fellow soldiers folded the American flag draped over his casket and presented it to his widow and two children.
Before the 11 a.m. service, Johnson’s family entered the church clothed in white with red flowers pinned over their hearts. Many also wore red accents — the color adopted by the youth Role Models program Johnson had been a part of — on their hats, ties or shoes. Dozens of bouquets and wreaths — from the mayor, his high school’s football team, the Walmart where he had worked in the produce aisle — filled the lobby of the church.
Johnson was laid to rest later that afternoon at Hollywood Memorial Gardens, during which six of his fellow soldiers folded the American flag draped over his casket and presented it with two other folded flags to his widow and two children, 6-year-old Ah’leeysa and 2-year-old La David Jr. An honor guard fired three volleys from rifles before taps warbled over the crowd.
Before Johnson’s casket was slid into the granite slab that would become his final resting place, Myeshia Johnson walked up to her husband’s remains one more time, the folded flag from his casket pressed against her chest. Her right hand stroked the casket’s gleaming silver surface. She bent down and kissed the top, her husband’s dog tags around her neck clinking against its side.
Then her tears began to flow.