MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, FLA. (WSVN) - The body of an Army sergeant from South Florida who was killed in an ambush in Africa arrived in Miami, Tuesday afternoon.
The somber and heartbreaking scene unfolded after President Donald Trump reached out to the soldier’s family in a phone conversation that included a comment that, family members said, did not sit well with them.
Meanwhile, as questions continue to swirl about the Oct. 4 attack that killed U.S. Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson and three other Green Berets in Niger, the Department of Defense confirmed it is investigating the deaths.
7News cameras captured the plane carrying Johnson’s body as it touched down at Miami International Airport for a hero’s homecoming, at around 5 p.m. The arrival of the Delta Airlines jet was marked by a water cannon salute as the aircraft pulled into the gate.
About a dozen members of Johnson’s family sat on the tarmac as they watched the casket of the Green Beret from Miami Gardens being removed from the aircraft.
Passengers on the flight that arrived from Atlanta wiped away tears moments after it landed. “It was an honor to be on the flight with him,” said Dennis Ward.
Many had no idea they had flown with the fallen soldier until after they landed. “When we came in, they just said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we ask for you to pause for a moment of silence,'” said passenger Mekka Parish.
“Well, after they made the announcement, it was quiet,” said passenger Fred Arkanoff. “Everybody was looking out of the window.”
Once the coffin, draped with the U.S. flag, was placed on the tarmac, Johnson’s widow, who is pregnant with their third child, walked toward it with her daughter by her side and broke down in tears as she put her hand on the casket.
“It was just silent,” said Parish. “You heard sniffling, you heard people crying, and you know everyone was just being respectful.”
Some of the passengers used their cellphones to capture the ceremony from their seats.
Dennis Ward and his wife Debra said they were at a loss for words as they watched Johnson’s widow walk up to his casket. “You could see the family, and you just really felt for their sacrifice,” said Debra.
“And we’re grateful,” said Dennis.
“When I saw his wife standing there, pregnant with his little daughter, and walking out to the casket, it just really — it broke my heart,” said Parish.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez were among the public officials in attendance at the ceremony. Members of local law enforcement were also on hand to pay their respects.
Moments later, soldiers placed Johnson’s casket in a hearse. Traffic came to a standstill on the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 as the motorcade made its way to a funeral home in Hollywood.
“It’s very emotional for me because I love this country, and I appreciate what he did,” said Dennis Ward.
Terrence McGriff, Johnson’s father, spoke with 7News, Tuesday afternoon. “He was a very loving person. He was a No. 1 father; I knew that for a fact,” McGriff said. “He was a loving husband, you know what I’m saying? He just was a special kid.”
“It’s just really hard knowing he’s not actually here with us no more,” said Torneisha Ghent, Johnson’s sister. “We’re not going to ever hear him talking, or talk to him.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement honoring the soldiers’ sacrifice. “We will never forget their heroic actions. Our hearts break for their families and loved ones.”
Johnson, who had been assigned to the Third Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, N.C., and three other soldiers were killed in Niger, Oct. 4, when a joint patrol of American and Niger forces was ambushed by militants believed to be linked to the Islamic State group.
The three other Green Berets killed in the attack were identified as 35-year-old Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 39-year-old Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and 29-year-old Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright.
The military said the other three victims were recovered right after the attack, but Johnson’s body was initially left behind. The 25-year-old’s cadaver was found Oct. 6, after an extensive search.
U.S. officials have reportedly described the scene of the ambush as one of confusion. The chaos in Niger took place during what was supposed to be a mission to train villagers to fight extremists. The victims were part of a group of 12 soldiers on patrol who came under fire by 50 Islamic State fighters as they returned to an unarmored vehicle following a meeting with villagers.
Officials said the firefight continued for nearly 30 minutes before help arrived. Two other soldiers were injured.
Wilson, who accompanied Johnson’s widow and other relatives to the funeral home, said she and the fallen soldier’s loved ones need answers. “Why was he separated from the rest of the soldiers?” she said. “Why did it take 48 hours to find him? And why were they so unprotected?”
Ghent said she spoke to her brother in September. “He was telling me he loved me, and I was telling him I loved him,” she said. “I said, ‘Be careful,’ not knowing that was the last time that I was actually going to talk to my brother.”
“He said, ‘It isn’t like I was drafted or I was forced to go do this. This is something that I wanted to do,'” said McGriff.
When asked whether he believes the U.S. government owes him an explanation over the roughly 48-hour period that passed before his son’s body was recovered, Johnson’s father replied, “Yes, I do.”
“They do have concerns. They have questions; they want answers,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan.
Johnson leaves behind a wife, two small children and a third on the way.
“There’s a child, two children that are going to grow up without their father,” said Arkanoff. “It’s just kind of hard to explain.”
“A lot of people had tears, because you can see it on TV, but when you’re actually there at the time, it’s a little bit different,” said Arkanoff.
Johnson’s family received a call from Trump, Tuesday afternoon.
Wilson described that phone conversation. “He was sorry. He had his sympathy,” she said.
However, there was a moment during the conversation that struck a sour note with Wilson and Johnson’s loved ones. “He was hoping that, even though her husband gave his life for his country, he said sarcastically, ‘But you know he must have known what he signed up for.'”
The family confirmed that Trump added, “But when it happens, it hurts anyway.'”
The commander in chief’s prior comments regarding the ways previous administrations reached out to fallen military members’ loved ones have become the subject of controversy.
Trump addressed the matter during a news conference. “I was told that [President Barack Obama] didn’t often [contact military families], and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters,” he said. “I do a combination of both.”
Johnson has been hailed as a local role model. The organization 5,000 Models of Excellence is currently putting together a scholarship program for his children.
A funeral service for Johnson is scheduled for Friday.
Authorities said the investigation into the Niger ambush will yield findings that should be available to government officials early next week. These results will probably be classified.
A GoFundMe has been created, which can be found here, for a scholarship in Johnson’s name.
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