Forever etched into our memory is that image: the grainy videotape of a woman with chocolate-brown skin wearing cornrows. She could have been your sister, cousin, best friend. Instead she was a prisoner of war in Iraq.
With terror in her eyes, Shoshana Johnson brought the reality of a conflict that was a world away into our living rooms. A single mother and native of Panama who loves to cook, she had joined the Army to earn money to attend culinary-arts school. But when the news came that she was being deployed to Kuwait, Johnson, who lives in El Paso, Texas, put her car in her parents’ garage, wrote a will, and signed over power of attorney to her parents so they could take care of her then–2-year-old daughter, Janelle.
As she said good-bye to her little girl, she simply said, “Mommy has to go to work.” She didn’t tell her, “Mommy has to go to war.”
A month later, on a windy Sunday morning in March, Johnson set out from Kuwait with her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, in a convoy of Humvees and trucks carrying supplies. But they were ambushed after making a wrong turn near the Iraqi city of Nasiriya. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed; Johnson was seized, along with four of her comrades, and spent 22 days in captivity before they were rescued on April 13, 2003.
When she arrived home, U.S. military officials prohibited all the former POWs from talking to the news media about their ordeal until the Army released its official report on the incident. For the first time, 31-year-old Shoshana Johnson, the first African-American female POW, tells her story of survival exclusively to Essence features editor Veronica Byrd. Here are some excepts:
Veronica Byrd: Would you describe what happened on March 23, 2003, the day you were captured?
Shoshana Johnson: Before we left Kuwait they told us that we would be traveling through two checkpoints and two cities and that we might hit sniper fire. So I knew that was a possibility. But we never expected an ambush. We heard shots and suddenly we were surrounded. We were getting shot at from all directions. I was the passenger in a truck with Specialist Edgar Hernandez. Our vehicle ran off the road. We scrambled for cover and hid underneath the truck so we could return fire. I got off one round and then my gun jammed. 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. I knew I had been hit. Hernandez was shot in the arm. After a while, Sergeant Riley said we had to surrender. He was the highest-ranking officer, so he went out first and put up his hands. The Iraqi soldiers came and got me because I couldn’t stand up.
Veronica: What happened after you were captured?
Shoshana: I was beaten. They slapped me and punched me in my stomach and back. I remember trying to block a blow from a rifle butt.
Veronica: Did the other soldiers try to help you?
Shoshana: They didn’t see it because they were getting beaten, too. And then my Kevlar headgear came off, and the Iraqis saw my braids. That’s when they realized I was a woman. They stopped beating me and immediately separated me from the others.
Veronica: Where did they take you?
Shoshana: They put me in the back of an SUV with two guards on each side of me. Then they took me to what looked like an office. I was terrified. There was blood coming out of my boots. Within a few minutes a doctor came in, removed my boots and bandaged my legs. The doctor spoke in broken English and said, “It’s good. Only on soft tissue.”
Veronica: What happened after that?
Shoshana: We were taken to Baghdad. Then I was examined again, and I was blindfolded during that. My pant legs were already rolled up so the doctor could see the bandages that the first doctor had put on. He unwrapped my legs and cleaned the wound. And he told me, “You need antibiotics. I’m going to give you a shot.” He said he had to give me the shot in my butt. I knew I needed the antibiotic, but I didn’t want to take any more pain medication when they offered it to me. I had taken some right before we left the first location and it had made me feel really out of it. So when the doctor asked me if I wanted more, I said no. He commented, “Strong woman.” I thought, Shut the hell up. I’m not a strong woman. It hurts! But I’m not stupid. I didn’t want to be in that state of mind again.
Veronica: I still remember the first time we saw you, right after you had been captured. What was going on when the videotape was made?
Shoshana: They shot that video within the first hour after we were captured. I was sitting in a chair, and someone with a camera came into the room. They asked me basic questions: my name, age and where I was from. It wasn’t an interrogation. I kept looking left to right because the guy who spoke English was not the same person with the microphone. So one would say something in Arabic and the other would interpret the question. The taping lasted about five minutes.
Veronica: This is a difficult question to ask. Were you raped or sexually assaulted in any way?
Shoshana: No. But 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. One guard seemed to really like me and even tried to hold my hand one time. I would kind of duck away from him, but I always wondered when he would not let me say no. That was always in the back of my head. But there was this older guard who moved his bedding and slept right outside my cell door. I saw him when I woke up and banged on the door to ask to go to the bathroom. He did that, I think, to protect me. After that night, I never saw the other guard again.
Veronica: You must have spent a lot of time praying.
Shoshana: I did. I prayed that I would survive, but I also prayed that if I didn’t, that at least my body would be found. I wanted my parents to have a body to bury. Because if they didn’t have a body to bury, they wouldn’t be at peace. I know my mother. She wouldn’t give up until she had a body. I said, “Lord, if I die, make it quick and let my body go home to my mother.”
Read the complete interview—including the day Shoshana thought was her last, and her feelings about the more favorable treatment of Jessica Lynch—in the March 2004 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.
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