— The physical healing is done, but nearly seven years after becoming the U.S. armed forces’ first black female prisoner of war when she was captured by Iraqi insurgents, Shoshana Johnson is still dealing with the mental trauma of her ordeal.
In March 2003, just days after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Johnson’s unit got separated from its convoy and was ambushed in the city of Nasiriyah. Eleven members of the unit were killed, and seven, including Johnson and Jessica Lynch, were captured.
Lynch, who was held separately, became a national hero when she was rescued after nine days of captivity. Johnson and four other captives were rescued after 22 days, also to be welcomed as heroes.
Physical and mental wounds
Johnson was badly wounded in both ankles during the assault, and, she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York, the effects will be with her forever.
“I’ll never be the same, but the legs are still here, so I’m very blessed,” she said.
Also still with her are the mental wounds she suffered, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
“I’m still working on it. I still see a therapist on a regular basis. I still take antidepressants. It’s going to be a long, long battle,” Johnson said.
Now discharged from the Army, Johnson is back in the news because of the publication of her book about her experiences. “I'm Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen - My Journey Home” was published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.
Johnson told Lauer she wrote the book to clear up a number of misconceptions people have about what happened to her.
“One thing is that I was running away,” she said. Another was “that there was animosity between myself and Jessica.”
Litany of errors
When Jessica Lynch, who was badly injured in the attack, was rescued nearly two weeks before everyone else, the Army sold her as a John Wayne-type hero who had gone down with her guns blazing. The story captured the country’s imagination, and the fascination continued when it was revealed that the Army’s original story was a total fabrication. Lynch, like Johnson, did not have a working weapon and surrendered without firing a shot.
Johnson had to fight to get the same disability pay as Lynch. It also took two years before the Army recognized her PTSD, she writes. But, she says, she remains friends with Lynch and understands why she got more attention than the other captives.
The attack on Johnson’s and Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company came as the result of a litany of mistakes and errors. The unit was the last group in a convoy of 600 vehicles moving to Baghdad and got bogged down in sand. As the convoy moved on without them, they got lost. Navigators were not positioned where they were supposed to be. Communication devices weren’t working.
After hours of wandering through the desert trying to find the convoy, the unit of vehicles went through Nasiriyah for the second time. That’s when a mob of armed men, none of them in military uniform, attacked. When the soldiers tried to fight back, most of their rifles jammed.
Learning from mistakes
Lauer asked if she holds any anger toward the Army for all the mistakes.
“No,” Johnson replied. “I try not to hold any anger. Hindsight’s 20/20. Looking back, it’s real easy to see every single thing that went wrong that could have been corrected, but in the moment, it’s not that easy. I think there were a lot of mistakes made. I know they have learned from those mistakes, so what happened to us was not in vain.”
Still, there was plenty to trouble Johnson once she returned to her Texas home. The Army’s initial refusal to treat her PTSD was hard to take, as was what she called “the resentment and pettiness” of other soldiers toward her because of the attention she received.
With a young daughter at home, Johnson, who had been in the Army since 1998, requested a medical discharge in August 2003. When she was discharged, among her decorations were a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War Medal.
Even insurgents were moved
She writes that during her captivity, she never knew if she would be released or killed. But she said that her captors treated her well, and the Iraqis even performed surgery on her wounded ankles.
“I tried to keep strong. The last thing I wanted to do was be the hysterical female,” Johnson told Lauer.
She managed to do that, too — until her captors told her that they had seen her mother on television worrying about her. The woman the Iraqis had seen was actually Johnson’s grandmother, but Johnson’s daughter back home was just 2, and the mention of family hit her hard and she broke down. Film of her emotional response was broadcast on Iraqi television and then in the United States.
“Once they told me they had seen my mother, I automatically thought of my daughter. That really hit home and I lost it,” Johnson told Lauer.
The scene was so emotional, even the Iraqis holding her were moved.
“They felt kind of guilty,” Johnson told Lauer. “I saw them back out of the room.”