Shoshana Johnson Biography
U.S. Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson was captured by Iraqi forces during the first week of the 2003 U.S.-led war against Iraq, and became the first African-American female prisoner of war (P.O.W.) in U.S. history. Images of a frightened and injured Johnson were televised around the world shortly after her capture, and her family waited for three long weeks before she was rescued U.S. Marines. Though it was a tense time, her sister Nikki told CNN News reporters she had been hopeful her sister would return home safely. "She always had an angel following her around," Nikki Johnson told the cable-news organization. "She always manages to get out of stuff."
Johnson was born in Panama, the Central American nation, on January 18, 1973. Her family had West Indian roots, and her father was a U.S. military veteran. They later settled in El Paso, Texas, and Johnson served in her high school's Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). She took classes at the University of Texas at El Paso, and enlisted in the Army in 1998 hoping to earn tuition money to enroll at a culinary-arts school.
Johnson, stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, trained as an Army cook. Attached to the 507th Maintenance Company, which fixes the diesel tankers, generators, and Patriot missile batteries for infantry divisions, Johnson was dismayed to learn that she was being sent overseas once U.S. troops began to mobilize in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. By then, in early 2003, she was the single mother of a two-year-old daughter, Janelle, and was forced to leave her daughter in the care of her parents.
Johnson's 507th Maintenance Company unit was attached to the Third Infantry Division, which moved into Iraq during the week of March 20 after landing in nearby Kuwait. On March 23, Johnson was part of a convoy heading toward Baghdad on Highway 1, Iraq's main north-south artery. Her convoy made a wrong turn and was left alone and defenseless when Iraqi troops ambushed it near Nasiriya. The truck in which she was riding rolled over in the melee, and she and another specialist hid under it to return fire. "I got off one round and then my gun jammed," she recalled in an interview with Essence writer Veronica Byrd. "All of our weapons jammed because of the sand, so we had no way to return fire. Then I felt a burning sensation in my legs."
Eleven American soldiers were killed in the firefight before the ranking officer in Johnson's group, a sergeant, came out to surrender. Johnson had been shot in both feet, and the Iraqis ordered her and the others to come forward. "The Iraqi soldiers came and got me because I couldn't stand up," she said in the Essence interview. The Iraqi soldiers began beating the American soldiers with rifle butts, but when her helmet was knocked off and her cornrows became visible, they realized she was a woman and separated her from others. "Then they took me to what looked like an office," she told Byrd. "I was terrified. There was blood coming out of my boots."
Johnson's wounds were treated by an Iraqi doctor, and she was offered a painkiller. "More than once, a doctor said that they wanted to take good care of me to show that the Iraqi people had humanity," she told a writer for London's Independent newspaper, Andrew Gumbel. The captured Americans—who by now included two Apache helicopter pilots—were videotaped by Iraqi military officials, and the footage was sent to the media. Within hours, the images found their way onto the television in her parents' living room back in Texas. Later that day, Fort Bliss officials contacted them and confirmed reports that their daughter had become a prisoner of war.
Johnson was taken to Baghdad and held there until the city was captured by coalition forces two weeks later. While in custody, she underwent surgery on one ankle, after being required to write out her own waiver before submitting to anesthesia. She and the others were moved a total of seven times during their 22-day ordeal. Twice their cell walls shook because of bombs dropped nearby. She was not sexually harassed or assaulted because of her gender, but did tell Byrd in the Essence interview that "in one prison the guards kept commenting that I should stay and marry an Iraqi man. At first I thought it was a joke, but after they kept saying it, I started to think they were going to keep me." She also recalled that one of her guards kept trying to hold her hand, which was noticed by an older guard, who came and slept outside her cell that night; she never saw the other guard again.
Johnson and her fellow captives were worried that they might be killed when prison officials fed them an unusually rich meal one evening. "On that Sunday morning I remember it was really quiet, so quiet I felt worried," she recalled in the Essence interview. By then she was in the city of Samarra, being guarded by ordinary Iraqi police officers who had even taken up a collection amongst themselves in order to buy the prisoners necessary food and medicine.
On April 12, Marines heading toward Tikrit learned that the American P.O.W.s were nearby, and stormed the facility the next day. Telling everyone to stand up if they were American, the Marines at first did not believe that the still-injured Johnson was an American, but her fellow captives vouched that she was one of them. The Marines instructed them to run for their vehicle when they gave the signal, and "I started crying," she told Byrd. "I was like, 'I can't run.' Another Marine said, 'Come here.' I went over and he half-carried and half-dragged me to the vehicle."
Johnson and the others were shuttled to safety, treated, and debriefed. They were then flown home and reunited with their families days later. No longer able to serve because of her injured feet, she retired from the Army with a pension in early 2004, not long after helping New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg press the button that dropped the famous ball over Times Square at midnight on December 31.
Despite such honors, Johnson did not receive the level of publicity attached to another female American soldier who had been captured, eighteen-year-old Jessica Lynch. The West Virginian received a book deal and was even the subject of a made-for-television movie, and was granted higher disability payments than Johnson as a result of injuries suffered. Johnson appealed the military's decision and won a pension that amounted to 50 percent of her salary during the time she served. She dismissed any hints that she was a hero. "I'm a survivor, not a hero," she told Byrd in the Essence interview. "The heroes are the soldiers who paid the ultimate price and the Marines who risked their lives to rescue us. Who knows what they could have walked into? It could have been a trap. But just the thought of getting us out was enough. They took a chance, and because they did, I'm here."
Ebony, August 2003, p. 46.
Essence, March 2004, p. 166.
Independent (London, England), April 15, 2003, p. 5.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 8, 2003.
New York Times, March 28, 2003, p. B1.
Time, April 7, 2003, p. 64.
"Ex-POW Planned on Cooking, Not Fighting," CNN, www.cnn.com/2003/US/04/13/sprj.irq.pow.johnson (August 10, 2004).
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