On March 23, 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom was still a new venture for American troops, 18 vehicles became separated from the rest of their army convoy. Following faulty directions, the group entered a hostile town, where they were overcome by militant villagers. In her new book, I’m Still Standing, Shoshana Johnson writes of the ordeal that followed.
Johnson, who is this country’s first female black POW, wasn’t even sure why she’d been deployed—she’d spent her career in the Army as a cook. Meals in the desert were either field rations or provided by a civilian dining service, so she had little to do once she arrived in Iraq. But in the attack that killed 11 of her fellow soldiers, Johnson and six male soldiers were taken prisoner. Johnson had sustained severe injuries to both of her legs; two of the others were also injured.
For the next 22 days, until they were rescued by Marines acting on a tip, the seven POWs were shuffled from cell to cell, building to building, town to town. They were often separated; their injuries were given only cursory attention; their meals were inadequate bowls of rice, sometimes with a piece of chicken. Worst of all, they had no idea if they would be released, kept in prison indefinitely or executed. The last two options seemed the most likely.
Johnson writes of the horror of this uncertainty, of the unending boredom of days with nothing to do but imagine the worst scenarios, of hostile guards—or even worse, a flirtatious one who would stroke her neck or try to hold her hand. She also includes the more mundane details of the prisoners’ grim existence: dirty clothes, the lack of bathing facilities or even toilet paper. But Johnson isn’t entirely censorious about her treatment by the Iraqis. Several treated her with kindness, even becoming protective of her. And she still wonders if the three policemen who were their final captors might have been the ones to tip off the Marines.
When she and her fellow captives were finally released and landed in Kuwait, a chaplain approached Johnson and asked if he could pray with her. “The chaplain took my hand to begin the prayer, but before he could even say the first words, I started crying. I was overwhelmed with how much I had to pray about. There had been days of sheer terror, days of utter hopelessness. So many awful things that could have happened didn’t. Instead there were times when I had been grateful for the kindnesses so many of our captors had shown. And now I was free and on my way home. It was overwhelming.”
In fact, events after Johnson’s return to the U.S. were at times nearly as emotionally devastating as her ordeal in Iraq. Fellow soldiers became jealous of the attention the POWs received, and the Army refused to include PTSD treatment as part of her insurance coverage. She believes reporters even gave more coverage to Jessica Lynch (also captured by other Iraqis that day) because she was blonde and Johnson was black. It was distressing enough that Johnson left the Army; these days, she has returned to culinary school and also does public speaking, and she struggles with depression, guilt over living when her fellow soldiers died and anger at her treatment by the Army. Yet Shoshana Johnson proves with this book that she is, in fact, still standing.
Rebecca Bain is a freelance writer in Nashville.