To most of the country, Sgt. La David Terrence Johnson was an American service member killed in action in West Africa.
But to his family and in his community in Miami Gardens, Fla., Johnson was also known as “Wheelie King,” a nickname he earned for riding his bicycle on one wheel. He rode a lot, usually on his way to work.
“You go slow, though. Make sure you keep your balance,” Johnson told ABC affiliate WPLG in 2013, the year before he enlisted in the Army. “Once you feel that you are comfortable, you could just ride all day.”
Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. He left behind a wife who is six months pregnant and two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.
Now, two weeks after the 25-year-old soldier’s death, his name is entangled in a controversy involving President Trump, who has been accused of making insensitive remarks to Johnson’s young widow.
As questions continue to swirl around the circumstances of Johnson’s death — and around what Trump actually said to his wife during a Tuesday-afternoon phone call — the fallen soldier’s loved ones have largely remained quiet, except for a few public Facebook posts sharing pictures, condolences and memories of him.
To those who knew him, he was a loving husband who had his wife’s name, Myeshia, tattooed across his chest; a soldier who pushed to improve himself; a son who enjoyed talking about his family.
He was also a father who was looking forward to seeing his baby girl.
“He was very excited. He said, ‘Sergeant B, I’m having a girl!’ ” Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler, Johnson’s close friend, told The Washington Post.
He was also that kid on the bike, forever riding with one wheel up.
This weekend, friends and family members will hold a “WHEELIE KING 305” parade to remember Johnson, his wife announced on Facebook.
“Everyone With DirtBikes, 4 wheelers, Pocket Bikes ,BMX Bikes Come Out And Shout Out For My Husband!!!” Myeshia Johnson wrote.
One relative shared images of Johnson’s toddler getting on his bicycle for the first time.
“Ladavid Johnson look at your boy … want(s) to be exactly like you,” Sharri Johnson wrote.
In the 2013 interview with WPLG, La David Johnson said he liked to challenge himself by trying to go farther and farther.
At times, he wore a T-shirt with his nickname printed on it.
While riding one afternoon in a Miami Gardens park, a group of women in a car began to take photos of him, WPLG reported.
“We love you, La David!” they said.
YouTube videos showed him riding circles in parking lots, on neighborhood streets and once along a narrow guardrail separating a sidewalk from a major road.
He also would ride on one wheel on his way to a South Florida Walmart store, where he worked in the produce department.
Johnson joined the Army in January 2014 and was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.
He was highly regarded by his military peers.
Bohler, the friend who said he was also Johnson’s supervisor at Fort Bragg, said Johnson rose through the ranks rapidly — from a private to a sergeant in less than three years.
“He caught on quickly. You tell him once, and it’s complete, any task,” Bohler said Wednesday. “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.”
Lt. Col. David Painter, commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), said in a statement that “the Bush Hog formation was made better because of Johnson’s faithful service and we are focused on caring for the Johnson family during this difficult period.”
(The battalion was nicknamed Bush Hogs “due to its original alignment with the Africa area of operations,” according to its Facebook page.)
Johnson loved to talk about his family, particularly about the woman who raised him, Bohler said. His biological mother, Samara, died when he was a child, according to the slain soldier’s obituary. Cowanda Jones-Johnson and her husband, Richard Johnson, were entrusted with his care after his mother died.
Jones-Johnson is an aunt who raised Johnson as her own son.
“He’s very thankful for having somebody like his Mom, Cowanda, in his life,” Bohler said. “She wasn’t really his mom, but you couldn’t tell.”
Bohler added: “He had some pretty good upbringing. He didn’t do any drinking. He didn’t do any smoking. He was a family-oriented soldier.”
Johnson attended Dade County Public Schools and graduated from Miami Carol City Senior High School in 2010, according to his obituary.
In August 2014, he married his best friend, Myeshia Manual.
Following Johnson’s death, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) ordered flags to be lowered across the state.
“Ann and I join Floridians across the state in honoring the lives of U.S. Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson and the other three U.S. soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country and our freedom,” the governor said in a statement on Oct. 7, three days after the soldiers were killed. “We will never forget their heroic actions and our hearts break for their families and loved ones. We will continue to pray for the safety of all our brave military members across our country and abroad.”
Two weeks after he was killed, Johnson’s name made national headlines over the presidential condolence call to his widow.
During the call, Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband “must have known what he signed up for,” according to an account from Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who was riding in a limousine with the soldier’s family when the president called.
Wilson, who heard the conversation on speakerphone, later said Trump’s comments made the young woman cry.
“When she actually hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even know his name.’ That’s the worst part,” Wilson said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day.”
Trump pushed back in an early-morning tweet Wednesday, saying Wilson “totally fabricated” her account of the phone call — and that he had proof.
Hours later, the president expanded on his denial.
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said; didn’t say it all. She knows it,” Trump said when asked about the exchange by a reporter. “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was — sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during an afternoon briefing that there was no recording of the conversation but assured reporters that it was “completely respectful, very sympathetic.”
Wilson, who met La David Johnson while running a mentoring program for black youths in Miami, stood by her statement, saying she was not the only person who heard the call.
In a Facebook message to The Post, Cowanda Jones-Johnson said that she, too, was in the limousine, and that Wilson’s account of the conversation was accurate.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson said.
On Thursday, Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, who lost a son in Afghanistan, defended the president’s handling of the call to Myeshia Johnson and told reporters that he had counseled Trump on what to say to families of those killed on the battlefield.
In fact, Kelly said, he had recommended to Trump that he not make such calls.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,’” Kelly said during an emotional White House briefing.
Kelly, a retired Marine general and who once served as head of U.S. Southern Command, called Wilson’s response “selfish” and said “it stuns me” that the congresswoman had listened in on the call between Trump and Johnson.
Anne Gearan and John Wagner contributed to this report, which has been updated.