Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers who died in Niger earlier this month when Islamic State militants attacked them, was remembered Saturday in a funeral in Florida that drew hundreds of mourners.
Before dawn Saturday, an electronic road sign near the Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City, Fla., flashed: “FALLEN HERO SERVICE.”
A few hours later, Johnson’s flag-draped casket arrived at the church. About 1,200 people would soon pour in to pay their respects to Johnson, who was killed in action in West Africa on Oct. 4.
Inside the church, portraits of other soldiers who also had died in the attack — Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga. — were displayed on stage alongside a picture of Johnson, according to the Associated Press.
Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, entered the church dressed in white and escorted by an Army officer, the AP reported. The service was closed to the media.
Johnson was 25 when he was killed.
He is survived by his wife, who is six months pregnant, and their 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
Honor guards later carried Johnson’s casket to a graveside ceremony at Memorial Gardens East Cemetery in nearby Hollywood, Fla.
“It don’t feel real,” Johnson’s sister, Angela Ghent, told the AP after the church service. “It hasn’t hit me yet. I haven’t had time to grieve.”
Ghent added she was glad mourners got to hear about her brother’s love for bikes and cars, not just his military service.
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.”
Two weeks after Johnson’s death, his name became entangled in a controversy involving President Trump, who was accused of making insensitive remarks to Johnson’s widow.
On Tuesday, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said Trump had told Myeshia Johnson on the phone that her husband “must have known what he signed up for,” an account later corroborated by Johnson’s aunt, Cowanda Jones-Johnson.
Trump vehemently denied Wilson’s account, stating without evidence that he had proof it was “totally fabricated.” However, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly later appeared to confirm Wilson’s account.
As questions continued to swirl around the circumstances of Johnson’s death — and around that Tuesday-afternoon phone call — the fallen soldier’s loved ones largely remained quiet, except for a few public Facebook posts sharing pictures, condolences and memories of him.
Wilson attended the service Saturday dressed in a dark hat, a black-and-white striped suit and sunglasses.
To those who knew him, Johnson was a loving husband who had his wife’s name 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.
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.