COPPER CITY, Fla. - After U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson vanished in a desert in Africa for about 48 hours, the U.S. military went through great lengths to find him and make sure his body made it back to his family in South Florida.
During the funeral Saturday afternoon, Johnson's pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, kissed his casket goodbye. She was holding the U.S. flag in a triangle fold. The military also presented flags to their 6-year-old daughter Ah'leesya and 2-year-old son La David Jr.
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Their father, formerly known by thousands on social media as "Wheelie King 305" for his love of cycling on one wheel, was buried at the Hollywood Memorial Gardens cemetery.
"Everyone loved him," said Johnson's sister Terkema McGriff, who described him as a "perfect big brother" and said "he was very respectful, very helpful."
Johnson had completed one deployment and was beginning another with the U.S. team of "Bush Hogs" from the 3rd Special Forces Group when he died. He and his team were ambushed Oct. 4 in the Republic of the Niger, a landlocked country in Western Africa, near the border with Mali.
Nigerien troops recovered his body Oct. 6 for a return of remains ceremony Oct. 7 at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. President Donald Trump didn't attend the ceremony. He was playing golf with Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The morticians and staff at the base are trained to carefully wash the remnants of war away from the bodies of the fallen. They meticulously prepare the fallen before reuniting them with their families.
The ambush also killed Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.
There were many improvements made to honor the fallen at Dove Air Force Base after The Washington Post reported in 2011 that Air Force officials incinerated the remains of some U.S. soldiers and dumped them in a Virginia landfill.
The mortuary has a detailed database. Experts from the FBI usually examine the fingerprints of the deceased. DNA samples are compared and there is an autopsy. But when the injuries are severe and a reconstruction isn't feasible, there is a different process.
The morticians wrap the fallen soldier's remains. The staff pins the uniform on top. They shine the buttons and pay attention to every detail when they fold the flag over the casket. Despite all of the obstacles faced in Africa, the military returned Johnson's remains to his family Tuesday.
After learning they weren't going to be able to have an open casket viewing, his relatives saw the Delta Airlines jet deliver his casket at Miami International Airport. His aunt Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who raised him as her own son, was inconsolable.
Rep. Frederica Wilson stood behind her. When Johnson's mother, Samara Johnson, died in 1999, Jones-Johnson and her husband, his paternal figure, were there for him. He was 5 when his mom died.
La David Johnson stayed out of trouble in a neighborhood where gang-related shootings are not uncommon. About the time his remains arrived to MIA Tuesday a shooting left a man wounded near Carol City High School, Johnson's alma mater. On the day of his funeral, a shooting in the neighborhood killed a 26-year-old man.
Johnson graduated from high school in 2010 and worked at a Walmart in Pembroke Pines, where co-workers said he was known as "produce boy" or "Tee." He was a gym and church regular. Like his uncle, whom he referred to as his dad, he chose not to smoke or drink. Friends said he also didn't experiment with marijuana or drugs. He enjoyed fishing and showing off his discipline and skills the "Wheelie King."
His relationship with Myeshia Manuel, whom he met when he was 6 and wed Aug. 22, 2014, was so meaningful to him that he eventually tattooed her name across his chest.
His childhood sweetheart is set to deliver his third child in January. His three children will likely grow up asking questions, and the stories about his days serving along some of the most elite warriors in the world will likely make them proud.
Johnson's family, the Pentagon and the White House are waiting for the results of an ongoing investigation. His relatives want to know what happened to him during the 48 hours he was in an African desert. They want to know what his last moments in Niger were like.
Much of what happened remains secret. Johnson was serving with Green Berets when a group of Islamic militants ambushed them Oct. 4 in an area in Africa where ISIS affiliates like Boko Haram operate raising funds through a black market of gold from illegal mines.
What continues to trouble those who love Johnson is that he didn't leave in the French helicopters during the first evacuation. Dozens of questions are torturing those who loved him:
"Did he die alone?"
"How did he end up so far away from where the ambush happened?"
"Did jihadist torture him and take him there?"
"Did he run there wounded?"
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Thursday U.S., French and Nigerien forces didn't leave the battlefield until they recovered Johnson's body. Nigerien forces found his body Oct. 6. The U.S. military returned his remains to the U.S. a day later.
About two weeks after the deadly ambush in Africa, there has been some distracting political turmoil. Before Johnson's pregnant widow met his casket at MIA, Trump spoke to her in the car. According to Johnson's aunt he said Johnson "knew what he had signed up for."
The words offended his family.
Gen. John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, said Trump did the best he could during the phone call and his words were twisted. Wilson, who was also with the family when Trump called, disagreed. She was enraged and told reporters nationwide Trump was insensitive.
Kelly said Wilson was behaving like an "empty barrel" making noise. Wilson defended herself. The White House defended Kelly. The political conflict snowballed and on the day of Johnson's funeral that was the focus of the president's tweets.
During the services honoring Johnson Friday and Saturday, no one cared about politics. Thinking about the American hero's sacrifice was the priority. Debbie Valin and her teenage daughter, Michelle Shawn, held a U.S. flag outside of the church for more than an hour before the service.
"We are here for the military. We are grateful for the people who serve," said Valin, whose grandson just completed U.S. Marine boot camp.
Fred Walker, a U.S. Marine who served from 1983 to 1989, planted small flags along the driveway into the church.
"It’s about doing the right thing for the soldiers," said Walker, who served as a tank gunner and substance abuse counselor. "They are not acknowledged enough."
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