Life as the first African-American female POW

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers magazine

(Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about Spc. Shoshana Johnson’s capture, captivity and rescue. Read part one at http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2012/02/the-capture-of-the-first-african-american-female-pow/.

 It was shortly after dawn on the morning of March 23, 2003, and it was already the worst day of Spc. Shoshana Johnson’s life.

Together with other Soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company, she had been separated from the main part of a 600-vehicle convoy and gotten lost in the Iraqi desert. They were ambushed in the city of Nasiriyah by either paramilitary forces loyal to Saddam Hussein and/or local insurgents. Eleven Soldiers were killed and, after their weapons malfunctioned, six were taken prisoner.

Wounded in both legs, Johnson was now the first African-American female prisoner of war.

Johnson’s status as a POW was still little more than a technicality, however, and Johnson, Sgt. James Riley, Spc. Joseph Hudson, Spc. Edgar Hernandez and Pfc. Patrick Miller were far more like hostages or trophies than POWs protected by the Geneva Convention. (A sixth Soldier, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was held separately.) While Johnson, Hudson and Hernandez were still bleeding from their wounds, their captors kicked them and beat them with rifle butts. In her memoir, “I’m Still Standing,” Johnson remembers thinking, “They might literally tear me apart in their frenzy. … I could barely see through the pain in my legs. I was woozy with the searing agony.” Once her captors realized she was a woman, they stopped beating her.

A doctor patched them up when they arrived at a more official site, but their captors had a lot of questions and taped the POWs for the international media: Why did the Americans come to Iraq? To kill Iraqis? No, Johnson said, she came to cook.

“(My family) saw my eyes darting back and forth between the man speaking Arabic and the English translator,” she wrote. “They saw how rigid I was, not realizing that I was in debilitating pain or that I was suffering from shock, and they all came to the stark realization that I was in extreme danger. … For every day that I was in custody, they were in their own kind of prison. I sometimes think I had it easier, since I knew what I was facing.”

“I remember seeing that footage on CNN of her, wide-eyed and looking petrified. I wanted to know more about her … and the story behind that footage,” Johnson’s ghost writer, Mary “M.L” Doyle remembered, adding in the book’s forward that as a female Soldier herself, her worst nightmare was what Johnson faced. At the time, that image of Johnson disturbed many people more than the similarly scared and bruised faces of the male POWs, and the footage led to many debates and editorials about women and mothers in combat. (Johnson is a single mother; her daughter was two in 2003.)

“The men look scared to me, too, but she, her eyes are so wide, she just looks so scared,” Lori Manning, a retired Navy captain who headed the Women in the Military Project, told The New York Times just six days after Johnson’s capture. “It brings out the protective instinct in everybody. You just want to get her out of there.” Johnson herself worried that she might put the male Soldiers in danger, that they would try to defend her if the guards tried to hurt her, for they shouted with rage at any indication she was in pain. Most people, the article’s author, Jodi Wilgoren, continued, were afraid that Johnson was in fact being sexually tortured.

Toward the end of her memoir, Johnson says she doesn’t remember being raped, but that she also can’t remember large portions of that first day. She sometimes wonders if her subconscious blocked out a sexual assault, because it took her years to be intimate with a man again, and to this day is still not entirely comfortable with it. She does remember that under the guise of searching her, one of the guards grabbed her breast and squeezed. Hard. Another guard half joked, half threatened to find her a “nice” Iraqi husband.

The POWs were soon on their way to Baghdad. Their captors paraded them through a series of towns along the 200-plus mile journey. Enraged by the American invasion, mobs of locals surrounded the truck, shaking it from side to side and screaming what Johnson assumed were obscenities and death threats in Arabic. At different points, men spit on Johnson and reached in and slapped her across the face. She knew that, given half a chance, the mob would have torn her limb from limb.

More official-looking Iraqis interrogated them in Baghdad – Johnson was surprised they didn’t torture or beat her – and gave them old, dirty, striped POW pajamas to wear. The Red Crescent visited and Iraqi doctors insisted on operating on the wounded Soldiers.

Johnson felt “helpless, nervous. … I would be under anesthetic with no idea what they were going to do to me. I couldn’t get a second opinion. I was at their mercy and I didn’t much like it.” She didn’t even know the full extent of her injuries. In addition to open, gaping wounds, she had a broken bone in her left leg and a severed Achilles tendon in her right. Neither injury was addressed until after her rescue, and she needed years of physical therapy.

Gunfire had chased them as they rode, blindfolded, through the streets of Baghdad to the hospital. As Johnson lay in the operating room, American bombs fell nearby, shaking the glass windows in their frames. “They were about to operate on me when my country was bombing the hell out of their capital city,” she wrote. “I wondered if they all hated me. I wondered what I would think of them if the tables were turned.”

In fact, after their initial capture, some of the scariest moments for the Soldiers came during the battle for Baghdad. Bombs landed so close they damaged the prison and left Johnson terrified and trembling. Their captors drove the Soldiers through the streets, dodging bombs and bullets in a rickety ambulance. Blindfolded much of the time and able to hear the clatter of spent shells on the ground, the Soldiers wondered if they would fall victim to friendly fire. Maybe that was the Iraqis’ intention, Johnson worried.

As the American military closed in, the POWs became a political “hot potato,” Johnson told reporters after her rescue. No one wanted to be responsible for them or be caught with them, so they were moved at least seven times. They were held in several prisons, a city jail, private homes and even some kind of storage facility. The more out of the way the location, the more rescue seemed impossible. Johnson added that it “was getting to the point where I believed they were going to kill us.” They were finally taken some 70 miles north to Samarra.

Their new guards were police officers, and Johnson and the other Soldiers later said how much kinder they were than their first captors, even buying fresh bandages for the POWs with their own money. They fed them better too, giving the Soldiers chocolates and meat, not just the meager diet of gruel, rice, cheese and crackers, tea and cucumbers that they had been subsisting on for weeks. Johnson remembers hoping she would at least lose 20 pounds from the experience, and she dreamed about a nice thick steak and an ice-cold beer.

Even better, Johnson was able to shower regularly and wash out her underwear, which felt like heaven after she had to spend more than a week without a shower or clean underwear during the first part of her captivity. She had to be carried to the bathroom and then squat on her injured bare feet, usually on a filthy floor over a hole in the ground. There wasn’t any toilet paper, so she used the tissue she had in her pocket from her MREs, then she tore up her T-shirt, then she used the cotton from her bandages. She couldn’t do anything about her hair and was horrified when she saw how it looked on the tapes of her captivity and rescue.

It was now April 13, and Marines from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion had stopped in Samarra on their way to Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Locals approached and tipped them off: Seven Americans — the five 507th Soldiers had been joined by two downed Apache pilots — were being held nearby in House 13. Their guards were prepared to surrender.

The only problem was that the Marines couldn’t find the house, and after 30 to 45 minutes, they got increasingly nervous. Iraqis surrounded them, even staring down from rooftops as they combed the streets, and the Marines feared it was a trap, Cpl. Curney Russell told reporters. They were about to turn back when a man in dirty yellow pajamas signaled them from a nearby window:

“I’m an American,” Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, one of the downed pilots, called quietly.

Inside, Johnson and the other POWs had no idea rescue was at hand, and she ducked when a huge bang shook the house. “Get down!” she heard in English, but Johnson was paralyzed with shock. “If I hadn’t known they were American, if I hadn’t known they were there to rescue us, I would have been frightened by them,” she wrote. “Don’t hurt (the guards),” she begged the Marines before they half-carried her to a light armored vehicle. “They were kind to us.”

After three weeks in captivity, Johnson was free. Overcome, she turned to the closest Marine and collapsed in his arms, sobbing in relief.

She was free, but her life had changed forever. Her recovery was long and painful, and even now, almost nine years later, Johnson still copes with post-traumatic stress disorder. Nor was she prepared for accusations that they had gotten themselves captured, or the way other Soldiers resented the media attention she received, so she left the Army. She had to fight for her disability benefits, but at first turned down book deals and the movie offers, until her parents convinced her that it was time: As the first African-American female prisoner of war, she had a responsibility to share her story.

“She came at her story the way a junior Soldier would look at that mission, not the way an officer would look at it, not the way some strategic thinker would look at it,” Doyle said. “This is what she felt. This is what she was thinking at the time. … She was extremely brave about the things that she talked about.”

Johnson went to culinary school, and was invited to serve on the Department of Veterans Affairs minority affairs advisory board. She meets up with her fellow POWs every year when they undergo their annual POW exams as part of a long-term Department of Defense POW study, and she got a tattoo with all of their initials.

She still remembers her lost friends and battle buddies and wonders how she was one of the lucky ones. “How did we deserve to be alive when so many of the good ones had died?”

(Editor’s note: This story is based on interviews with Doyle, news reports from 2003 and Johnson’s book.)

  • Alfredo Sapasap

    SPC Johnson; first of all thank you for your service… I am so proud of you for stepping up and tell your story; often enough soldiers in general are quick to judge when rumor control fail to state the facts. So remember coming to the call of duty are only shared by a few and you SPC Johnson are among the few who has and there are even far more less who were listed as Iraq POW’s. Tell your story so that those unfortunate ones may have a fighting chance in survival as future POW’s. Swift and Deadly First Sergeant Alfredo Sapasap (US Army Ret)

  • Maria Trifona Umbac

    SPC Johnson,I don’t know if we cases such as yours here in the Philippines. Mostly our males are usually the ones got captured after combat operations/ambush perpetrated by the Communist Terrorist. Captured/hostage females are mostly civilians and majority of them are sexually assaulted by their captors. Some of them were able to move forward by writing a book about their ordeal or buried themselves with work. The others were left traumatized and some were impregnated by their captors. I am so proud of you for being brave enough to share and speak out about your ordeal. Through this, you felt a big chip falls from your shoulder. It is hard to just keep it yourself because it will eat you up. Others like you will follow and with this, there will be some sort of awareness about women in uniform and the risks that they have to take. You are an angel to your fellow hostages. They look up to you for their hope and strength to survived. Don’t stop sharing your story. Take care. I salute you, SPC Johnson! – Cpt Maria Trifona Umbac (Philippine Army Active)

  • LT. Dillard

    First thank you for serving, I’m truly sorry you and your unit went through what you did. I’m glad you made it back state side, the only thing I don’t like about this issue, is that they classify you as the first African American pow, why does race matter in this? You stood your ground, held on, and you was a true soldier. A strong female soldier. That is how they should see you, that is how I see you. Keep your head up and stay strong, even though your home and that is over, I’m sure it stays with you, so when those feelings or nightmares come think of what you have, and how strong you are. All of you who went through that together are strong, god bless you soldier.