Before U.S. Army Sgt. La David Terrence Johnson became a central figure in the war of words between a South Florida congresswoman and the President of the United States, he was a child raised — and deeply loved — in Miami Gardens.
The 25-year-old decorated soldier, one of four killed Oct. 4 by ambush in Niger in West Africa, was known long before his deployment as a conscientious, ambitious kid as eager to bike one-wheeled in his neighborhood as he was to post proudly about his old job in the produce section at the local Walmart.
He was doted on by the extended family who raised him after his mother died when he was 5. In the same neighborhood he met the schoolgirl who would become his wife and mother of their two children, with a third on the way. He had her name, Myeshia, tattooed on his chest.
The Carol City Senior High graduate came to national attention this week after U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson said President Donald Trump had insulted his 24-year-old widow — telling her “he knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens it hurts anyway”— when he called to offer condolences on Tuesday. Trump accused Wilson of “fabricating” what he said. Johnson’s family has backed up Wilson’s account of the call, which Wilson and the family heard on speakerphone on the way to Miami International Airport to retrieve Johnson’s body.
Trump’s words didn’t reflect the young man Wilson said she and so many others in the community had grown up with and loved.
Johnson was “a true role model,” she said. “The real deal.”
Johnson was born in Miami on Jan. 2, 1992, to Samara Johnson and Terrance McGriff. Before Samara died in 1999, she asked her sister-in-law, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, and her brother, Richard, if they would raise her son as their own.
The couple held Johnson to high standards, Wilson said. Cowanda enrolled him, like the other boys in the family, in the 5000 Role Models, a project Wilson started in 1993 to mentor African-American males and develop them for college, vocational school or the military.
“‘They will be somebody,” Wilson recalled Cowanda telling her sons.
Wilson has known the family for decades, back to when Richard Johnson, the boy’s uncle, was a student of hers when she was a teacher and principal at Skyway Elementary in Miami Gardens, then known as Carol City. Through the 5000 Role Models program, one of Johnson’s siblings earned a full scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach for engineering. Another attended a school for firefighters after graduating from high school this year.
“It’s not easy to rear little black boys these days and she and her husband did an outstanding job,” said Wilson, 74, a fourth-term congresswoman known for her colorful cowboy hats.
As a boy, Johnson loved to turn bicycle tricks so deftly he earned the nickname “Wheelie King,” riding on one wheel throughout the neighborhood.
“You go slow, though. Make sure you keep your balance,” Johnson told WPLG Local 10 in 2013, a year before he enlisted in the Army. “Once you feel comfortable, you could just ride all day.”
He also met Myeshia Manual, who would become his best friend and love of his life while they were schoolkids. He would marry her in August 2014, months after he joined the military.
After graduating from Carol City High in 2010, he worked in the produce section of Walmart, from which he later posted photos of his job. He wrote about his desire to improve himself.
“They used to call me produce boy,” he said in a 2014 Facebook post that showed him beaming in the store’s back room. His social media page was typical of a young man who found the best in simple pleasures — his beloved bicycles, his work, his family and friends and prom pictures. “I know I’m not perfect but all I wanna do is make the best of lyfe,” he posted in shorthand spelling. “Everyday I wake up to see [what] I did to make today better than yesterday.”
By early 2014, he had decided the way to do that was to join the Army. He enlisted, with his family hosting a small get-together for him.
“[T]here will be hot food and drinks so come on out and take pictures and let him know that he have nothing but support on his journey,” his aunt and uncle posted on Facebook.
Johnson was not the only mentee in the Role Models project who would serve in the military, Wilson said. Two other young men she mentored were killed while serving in Iraq. “This is very personal to me,” she said.
Johnson earned multiple military honors during his service, including the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. But his growing family was never far from his thoughts.
He and his wife were expecting a daughter in January, he would tell his fellow soldiers. Even though he was half a world away, they had already picked out a name: La’Shee. She will join their two other children: 6-year-old Ah’leeysa and 2-year-old Ladavid Jr.
“He was very excited. He said ‘Sgt. B, I’m having a girl!’ Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler, Johnson’s buddy, told The Washington Post.
“He was just that one soldier that always wanted to better himself every day. Every day, he wanted to do better than he did yesterday,” Bohler said.
Johnson was on his second deployment to Africa when he was killed with three other American soldiers, part of the 3rd Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The contingent, working in an adviser role to the Niger Armed Forces, was ambushed by a group of ISIS-affiliated fighters, in the landlocked country bordered by Nigeria, Chad, and Burkina Faso, among other countries.
The ambush hit Wilson hard. As a Congresswoman, she had helped pass a bill involving a U.S. joint military task force that worked with four neighboring African countries — Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad — to combat Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group increasingly allied with ISIS.
“We sent La David to that region because of my legislation,” she said. “They weren’t fighting. They were there as observers and as advisers and he was killed and I feel so guilty.
“If someone were to get killed, why would it be La David?” she added. “Someone who is a 5000 Role Model. My boy. That has me just grief stricken.”
In addition to his wife, children and aunt and uncle, Johnson’s survivors include his father Terrence “Teoka” McGriff; grandparents Barbara Jones, Joann Johnson and Richard Johnson Sr.; and numerous siblings.
Several of them were present at Miami International Airport on Tuesday to receive Johnson’s remains. Myeshia leaned over her husband’s flag-draped coffin, sobbing.
A viewing will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, and the funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday. Both the viewing and funeral will be at Christ The Rock Church, 11000 Stirling Rd., Cooper City. Johnson will be buried at Hollywood Memorial Gardens. A GoFundMe scholarship fund at www.gofundme.com/sgt-la-david-johnson-scholarship has been established for Johnson’s children.