Two months before Sgt. La David T. Johnson died in an ambush in Niger, he told his sister in an hourlong video chat that he was ready to come home. He wanted to see his children again and return to his wife, then four months pregnant with their third child.
"He was ready," said Torneisha Ghent, 24, who along with her brother grew up in Carol City, a neighborhood in north Miami-Dade County.
But Johnson remained committed to his role as an Army mechanic serving the 3rd Special Forces Group as part of a mission to train African troops in the fight against terrorism. He told friends and family he wanted to help his team. He also needed the money to buy a home for his growing family.
Ghent would never see her brother again. Weeks after their last exchange, Johnson’s family learned that he had disappeared in a firefight. Days later, they learned of his death after an ambush. And then came the controversy over President Donald Trump’s call to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and the swirling feud that followed involving the president, his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, Myeshia Johnson and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., over what was said in the call. Yet many who knew the slain soldier now lament that Johnson’s story has gotten lost amid the flurry of criticism and accusations.
The bitter back and forth is a marked contrast to his life, which family, friends and fellow soldiers say was characterized by kindness and an optimism that allowed him to rise above a tough upbringing, when so much around him seemed set on keeping him down.
Johnson, who was 25 when he died, grew up in a gritty suburb with some of the highest crime and poverty levels in Florida — one of its few distinctions was having one of the highest police "stop and frisk" rates in the country. He watched his mother suffer for years with tuberculosis before she died when he was 5. His father was mostly absent. His sister said that while many of his peers dropped out of school and drifted into crime, Johnson remained focused and upbeat, becoming known around Miami as the Wheelie King, often seen riding his BMX bike for miles on end, balanced only on his rear wheel. He was so good he eventually took off the front wheel entirely.
He went on to work as a produce stocker at Walmart — a job he kept during high school and until he joined the Army. Those who served with Johnson said he wanted to provide the best life possible for his family and managed to turn his early knack for fixing things into a successful military career. Within three years he was a sergeant.
"He would always mess with the screwdrivers and the pliers. The cars and trucks that my grandmother used to buy him, he would take them apart and put them back together," Ghent recalled. While in the Army, Johnson taught himself how to cut hair, using his handiness and instructions from YouTube videos to become an unofficial barber for his Special Forces battalion, doing fades for $5 a pop.
"He would cut all the Africans’ hair. He had a little setup in his tent. He bought a bicycle and he took the wheel off of it and was riding in Africa with one tire," said Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler, who supervised Johnson during training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and became a close friend. The two men bonded over the fact they were both from Miami and Johnson often messaged Bohler during his second tour in Niger.
"We had the same culture growing up and knew the struggles that came about by just trying to get out of there," Bohler said.
Johnson lived with an aunt and then an uncle after his mother’s death and joined a mentoring program for young neighborhood boys, called the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project. Wilson, the founder of the program, remained close to the Johnson family and had accompanied his widow to greet his body when Trump called.
Frequent Facebook posts from 2010, the year he graduated from Miami Carol City Senior High School, and later show Johnson’s life then largely consisted of shifts at Walmart, working out at the gym, going to church, cooking for his family and tricking out his green 1995 Toyota Corolla, adding neon lights and bone-shaking 15-inch speakers. "Small resume bout me," he wrote on Facebook in 2012. "I don’t drink nor smoke, never got arrested, gotta job, got my own crib, got my own car, got my own music business, I love music." He met his wife when he was 6 and later had her name tattooed across his chest.
"He always loved to have fun, laugh and joke around, and help others," said Isaac Hodgeson, who was also in the mentoring program, and on the wrestling team with Johnson.
Posts from his life in Carol City also show he was stopped by the police repeatedly for little reason, but he never seemed to let it get him down. "Think Big. Think Positive. Think Smart. Think Beautiful," he posted in 2012. That year he first tried to join the Army, but failed the language section aptitude test by a few points, according to a post. He studied and eventually passed.
Soon after he met Bohler and both men and their wives became friends. Bohler, who now lives in Fort Lee in Virginia, remembers driving around for hours in 2014 as Johnson looked for a home before he finally decided to live on base. Their families often ate Sunday dinners together, with both Johnson and his wife cooking Thanksgiving-style meals of ham, macaroni and cheese, and pies.
The couples celebrated when both wives found out they were pregnant with girls and due a few days apart. Johnson and his wife, due in January, quickly began planning for the new baby and for life with their other two children, a young girl and boy.
"When he found out they were having a girl, he was very excited. He had already named the baby," Angiline Bohler said, adding that Johnson didn’t see the mission in Niger as dangerous because his first deployment went smoothly.
Staff Sgt. Charles Taylor Jr., who also supervised Johnson and escorted his body home from Niger, called him an "outstanding soldier." The two last talked the day Johnson and the team of Green Berets headed out on their fateful patrol.
"I told him ‘I know you can make it and to train up,’" Taylor said. It was the last thing the two would ever talk about. Johnson and three other soldiers would soon be dead.