To most of the country, Sgt. La David Terrence Johnson was an American service member killed in action in West Africa.
But to his family and his Miami Gardens, Fla., community, Johnson was 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. Once you feel that you are comfortable, you could just ride all day,” Johnson told ABC affiliate WPLG in 2013, the year before he enlisted for the Army.
Johnson, 25, and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. He left behind a wife who is six months pregnant and two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. Now, two weeks after his death, Johnson’s name is entangled in a controversy involving President Trump, who has been accused of making insensitive remarks to the soldier’s young widow. As questions still remain about Johnson’s death and over what Trump actually said to his wife, the fallen soldier’s loved ones have largely remained quiet, except for a few public Facebook posts sharing pictures, condolences and memories of him.
To those who knew him, he was a loving husband who had his wife’s name tattooed across his chest, a soldier who pushed to improve himself, and 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, Myeshia Johnson, wrote on Facebook.
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.
In the 2013 interview with WPLG,La David Johnson said he liked to challenge himself by trying to go farther and farther. At times, he wore a T-shirt with his nickname printed on it.
While riding one afternoon in a Miami Gardens park, a group of women in a car began to take photos of him, WPLG reported.
“We love you, La David!” they said.
YouTube videos showed him riding circles in parking lots, on neighborhood streets and once along a narrow guardrail separating a sidewalk from a major road. He also would ride on one wheel on his way to a South Florida Walmart store, where he worked in the produce department.
Johnson joined the Army in January 2014. He was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.
He was highly regarded by his military peers.Bohler, the friend who also said he was Johnson’s supervisor at Fort Bragg, said Johnson rose through the ranks rapidly — from a private to a sergeant in less than three years.
“He caught on quickly. You tell him once, and it’s complete, any task,” Bohler said. “He was just that one soldier that always wanted to better himself every day. Every day, he wanted to do better than he did yesterday.”
Lt. Col. David Painter, commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), said in a statement that, “The Bush Hog formation was made better because of Johnson’s faithful service and we are focused on caring for the Johnson family during this difficult period.”
Johnson loved to talk about his family, particularly about the woman who raised him, Bohler said. His biological mother, Samara, died when he was a child, according to the slain soldier’s obituary. Cowanda Jones-Johnson and her husband, Richard Johnson, were entrusted with his care after his mother died.
Bohler said Jones-Johnson is an aunt who raised Johnson as her own son.
“He’s very thankful for having somebody like his Mom, Cowanda, in his life,” he said. “She wasn’t really his mom, but you couldn’t tell.”
Bohler added: “He had some pretty good upbringing. He didn’t do any drinking. He didn’t do any smoking. He was a family-oriented soldier.”
Johnson attended Dade County Public Schools and graduated from Miami Carol City Senior High School in 2010, his obituary says.
In August 2014, he married his best friend, Myeshia Manual.
Johnson’s name became a national headline this week after Trump called his wife to offer condolences. In the call, Trump told her, “He must have known what he signed up for,” according to an account of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who was riding in a limousine with the soldier’s family when the president called and heard the conversation on speakerphone.
Wilson said Trump’s comments made the young woman cry.
“When she actually hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even know his name.’ That’s the worst part,” Wilson said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day.”
Trump pushed back in an early-morning tweet Wednesday, saying Wilson “totally fabricated” her account of the phone call — and that he has proof. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during a briefing Wednesday afternoon that there was no recording of the conversation but assured reporters that it was “completely respectful, very sympathetic.”
Wilson, who met Johnson while running a mentoring program for black youths in Miami, stood by her statement, saying she was not the only person who heard the call.
In a Facebook message to The Washington Post, Cowanda Jones-Johnson said that she, too, was in the limousine, and that Wilson’s account of the conversation was accurate.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson said.
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.