COOPER CITY, Fla. — Mourners filled a church in Florida on Saturday to honor a U.S. soldier whose combat death in Africa led to a political fight between President Donald Trump and a Florida congresswoman.
The widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson held the arm of an Army officer as she led her family, dressed in white, into the Christ the Rock Community Church in suburban Fort Lauderdale. The family asked that reporters remain outside.
Johnson, 25, was one of four U.S. Special Forces troops killed Oct. 4 in an ambush in Niger in an attack by militants linked to the Islamic State group. Four soldiers from Niger also died.
Debbie Valin and her teenage daughter, Michelle Shawn, held a U.S. flag outside the church in Cooper City 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 Marine boot camp.
Fred Walker, a Marine veteran, planted small flags along the driveway into the church.
"It's about doing the right thing for the soldiers. They are not acknowledged enough," said Walker, who served from 1983 to 1989 as a tank gunner and substance abuse counselor.
The fight between Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson has taken the focus off Johnson, whose widow, Myeshia, is due to have a daughter in January. Sgt. Johnson told friends she will be named La'Shee. The couple, who were high school sweethearts, already had a 6-year-old daughter, Ah'Leeysa, and 2-year-old son, La David Jr. An online fundraiser has raised more than $600,000 to pay for the children's education.
The Miami Herald reports that Johnson's mother died when he was 5 and that he was raised by his aunt. His family enrolled him in 5000 Role Models, a project Wilson began in 1993 when she was an educator to mentor African-American males and prepare them for college, vocational school or the military. He worked at Walmart for several years before joining the military in 2014.
A year before he enlisted, Johnson was featured in a local television newscast for his ability to do bicycle tricks, earning the nickname "Wheelie King." He said he learned his tricks by going slow.
"Once you feel comfortable, you could just ride all day," he told the interviewer.
The fight between the president and Wilson began Tuesday when the Miami-area Democrat said Trump told Myeshia Johnson in a phone call that her husband "knew what he signed up for" and didn't appear to know his name, a version later backed up by Johnson's aunt. Wilson was riding with Johnson's family to meet the body and heard the call on speakerphone. She was principal of a school Johnson's father attended.
Trump tweeted Wilson "fabricated" his statement and the fight escalated through the week. Trump in other tweets called her "wacky" and accused her of "SECRETLY" listening to the phone call.
Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, entered the fray on Thursday. Kelly asserted that the congresswoman had delivered a 2015 speech at an FBI field office dedication in which she "talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building," rather than keeping the focus on the fallen agents for which it was named. Video of the speech contradicted his recollection.
Wilson, who is black, fired back Friday when she told The New York Times "The White House itself is full white supremacists."
The retorts persisted on Saturday morning, with Trump tweeting: "I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party!"