(CNN) — A heartbreaking truth began to dawn for the family of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson as loved ones held a private funeral Saturday for the soldier who was killed along with three comrades in an ISIS ambush in Niger.
“Reality just hit me, and it was like, he’s really gone, and I’m not going to ever have my brother anymore,” Johnson’s sister, Terkiya McGriff, told CNN affiliate WSVN the previous night.
Flags across Florida flew at half-staff as Johnson’s remains were transported early Saturday afternoon for burial at Hollywood Memorial Gardens following the closed-door service.
Johnson had been honored Friday at a public wake and memorial service at Christ the Rock Community Church in Cooper City, Florida, WSVN reported. His casket was draped with the American flag.
Also killed in the ambush were Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, along with five Nigerien soldiers.
A father and a ‘Wheelie King’
Johnson, 25, was raised by his aunt and her husband in South Florida after Johnson’s mother died in 1999, according to his obituary. Growing up, he enjoyed playing football and met his future wife, Myeshia Manual, who now is pregnant with Johnson’s third child.
Before joining the Army in 2014, Johnson worked in the produce department at Wal-Mart, where he became known as “Wheelie King” because he commuted to work on a bicycle with no front wheel, his obituary said.
As relatives and friends gathered Saturday to celebrate Johnson’s life, the circumstances of his death, on October 4, remained foggy. US officials were still investigating how the sergeant, whose body was found a mile from the ambush site, got separated from his team. A search-and-rescue operation by US, French and Nigerian troops recovered his remains 48 hours later.
A phone call and a controversy
Johnson’s death also has become the focus of a feud between President Donald Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who spoke at Johnson’s funeral.
Wilson on Tuesday claimed Trump was disrespectful during a call he made to Johnson’s grieving widow, saying of the woman’s late husband, “He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
Trump has denied Wilson’s claim, but a family member who also was present at the time of the call confirmed to CNN on Wednesday that Wilson’s account was “very accurate.”
White House chief of staff John Kelly, a Gold Star father himself, indicated on Thursday that he advised Trump to offer those words. He said he was incensed that Wilson revealed details of what he deemed to be a “sacred” conversation.
Trump continued the quarrel Saturday morning on Twitter, calling Wilson “wacky.”