Iraq war veteran Shoshana Johnson entered the public eye when her unit was ambushed in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003. A culinary specialist in the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, she was in a supply convoy that came under enemy fire, just one month into her deployment to Iraq. She was captured with four other men in her unit and became the first Black woman prisoner of war in American history. Two other women, Lori Piestewa and Jessica Lynch, were also captured but held separately. Piestewa, the first Native American woman POW, died in captivity from injuries sustained during the ambush. Their captivity sparked controversy and brought the war closer to the U.S. home front. Images of the captured women flashed on news sites and TV networks, and the American public was confronted with the realities of women, formerly restricted from direct combat, now directly in harm’s way and in the hands of the enemy.
In 2010, Johnson published her memoir, I’m Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen—My Journey Home, which details her experiences in captivity and her difficulties upon her return home to El Paso, Texas. I came across Johnson’s book in college while conducting research on race and media bias. At the time, I was a journalism student and in the ROTC program on campus, through which I would commission as an Army officer upon graduation. I was struck by the difference in coverage of Lynch and Johnson’s captivity—what some media commentators have called “missing white person syndrome.” Lynch, who was nineteen at the time of the ambush, was slender, blond-haired and blue-eyed, and after being taken prisoner in Iraq became a media sensation back home and an icon of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Johnson, meanwhile, received very little coverage. Today, a simple Google search of their names returns over twenty times as many results for “Jessica Lynch” as for “Shoshana Johnson” (thirty million versus 1.5 million).
Following the drawdown in Afghanistan last summer, I reached out to Johnson for her perspective. As a fellow Black woman war veteran, we shared insights from different aspects of service to reflect on our standing as U.S. citizens. Together we tried to grapple with the meaning of our military service. This interview has been condensed and edited.
ALLISON ERICKSON: It’s been roughly twenty years since you became a POW, and people might not know much about the events leading up to that, or the other people involved. You have said that the civilian world has no idea what we go through, and I think that’s reflected also in the way people responded to your story and what happened with the ambush. In March 2003, your unit was doing a massive convoy, and you were at the tail end of this massive movement. So there was an almost two-day gap between when your vehicles broke down and when you got intercepted—is that correct?
SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Yeah, there were a lot of vehicles that got bogged down in that sand.
AE: But then you tried to double back, and essentially, you all ended up in a dangerous part of the route. And were ambushed.
SJ: Yeah, see, you get it. When you try to explain that to other civilians, they just don’t understand. They’re like, “What? How’d you get lost?” The other thing they don’t always get is that being two days behind, certain things change—checkpoints and stuff. Once you’ve started the battle, things change. And you don’t always get that information in a timely manner.
AE: Right. And you were far away, so far away from the rest of the convoy and the rest of your unit at that point, certain communication systems would not reach them. It’s not feasible. There’s no cell phone that you can pick up and communicate.
SJ: Yes, thank you. I think people just don’t get, especially now, years later, that there were no cell phones available—the communiques weren’t set up the way they have it now.
AE: And you were there for the initial push. I find it hard to compare because, you know, I was in Afghanistan in 2012-13. By then, my unit was sent where the military already knew the terrain: we knew all the outposts, we knew the enemy, we knew the threat. We even fell back into buildings that had been built before. But in your case, back in 2003, it was different. I had an old XO [executive officer] who called it “the wild, wild West.”
SJ: We got into the city, without a combat support unit, and I was like, something’s not right here. I had a bad feeling. We started getting turned around, and then the ambush happened.
AE: I vividly remember a description from your book of when you got captured and they patted you down, and one of the Iraqi soldiers realized you were not a man.
SJ: Yeah, the Kevlar came off, the braids came out, and they were like, “Oh.”
AE: At the time, Jessica Lynch, who was another POW, got a lot of attention in the press. Were you aware of the media imbalance in their treatment of your two cases? How did you feel about it when it was happening?
SJ: I think it was a little different for me to see it because when we came home, I came home with the guys—you know, it was seven of us. And I was the only female, so I got a lot of attention compared to the men. So I didn’t see it—the bias wasn’t as obvious to me as maybe it was to my family or people on the outside. Because I was active-duty, the PAO [public affairs office] here on Fort Bliss controlled a lot of what I was able to do. People magazine had made a request to do an interview with me, and I never saw it until I was getting out of the military.
AE: Can you tell me a little about your background and what led you to join the military?
SJ: My dad joined the military—actually it turns out he joined in Panama, on the U.S. Army base in Panama. Before that, my mom’s uncle was in the Army, her brother, some of her brothers-in-law. My dad had a brother that was in the Army. He came to the States in the Sixties, he was drafted for Vietnam. Can you believe it? Immigrants. And some people, they dodged it. But not us. I came from a military family.
AE: So you had that vet experience already in your background in your life. But you didn’t go straight from high school into the military.
SJ: No, I wanted to, but my parents were like, “We didn’t leave Panama for you to stop in high school—go to college.” I went to college at UTEP [University of Texas at El Paso]. First time I had some real freedom, and I screwed around. I had a good time. I dropped out and I worked every kind of job under the sun. And when I realized that culinary school was what I wanted, my parents were like, “You better figure it out.” So I went to the military. The military was meant for me. I mean, I was in ROTC, and I loved it and everything, so. Looking back, I realized I only spent like three or four years as a civilian.
And honestly, I don’t know how to be a civilian. I mean, even now, I’m technically a civilian, but I’m a vet, so I still do things totally different. I go to different hospitals, my gym is the gym on the base. I can’t be just a civilian.
AE: By that definition, I’ve never been a civilian, either. I went from Army brat, living on Army bases, then I did ROTC. And then straightaway: Army. I don’t know about you, but for me, I can’t separate my military identity from my American identity, if that makes any sense. My family are Jamaican American immigrants, my mom came to the States when she was sixteen, and two years later, she was in the Army. I don’t see my family’s story outside of a lens of national service.
SJ: Yes, I pretty much feel the same way. We have very few people in my family who aren’t connected to the military. We are very connected to serving the country that we have adopted as our own. Even when we’re not the ones that are serving, we tend to pick up jobs that are service-related: nurses, teachers and things like that. It’s a way of not just taking but giving back. Sometimes I think as immigrants to this country, it’s the way we think—not just to come and take but to also to put back in. I often get angry at some of the people who are born here and don’t understand that. What it takes to keep this country going. They like their lifestyle, they love the military. But if you ask them if they would ever serve, they’re like, “Oh, no, no, no.” And I’m like, “Okay, so you like the benefits, but you don’t want to make any sacrifices.”
AE: Or you get a half-hearted “thank you for your service,” and then you just made that person’s whole day, like, “I thanked a veteran,” and meanwhile I’m like, “Did you vote? Did you do your part? You paying your taxes?” In my experience, I had people constantly questioning me. When I told them I was an active-duty Army officer, they’d be like, “You, really?”
SJ: Unbelievable. I had an issue where I went to an event here in El Paso—it was a small thing on the base. And this lady came up to thank the men for their service, and just skipped over the females. And I was like, well, hello, I’m standing right here. It’s more annoying when it comes from a female. You should know better.
AE: Or there’s an assumption that you somehow didn’t do as much as some of the men.
SJ: Like, girl, if you only knew. I did more than a lot of the men.
AE: As far as what you saw in combat, I will say you are special.
SJ: For women, especially women in the military, we hold ourselves to such a high standard, we have to be so much tougher to endure the flak we get for being in a “male” job. We don’t want to break down and show that we shouldn’t be here. So we hold on tighter, I think, than the men do. Because then that will be proof that we shouldn’t be where we are at. Looking back, maybe it’s not that big of a bragging point, but when we got rescued, I said, “I’m not gonna cry and show that I’m the weak female.” So I made sure to hold onto my tears until at least one of the males broke down first. I’m being rescued and I’m worried about crying and being happy that I’m going home. Because I didn’t want to show that weakness. I didn’t want to be the disturbed, hysterical female. But I did it. I was not crying until one of those men did it first.
AE: We want to be part of the team and part of the club. We do hide a lot of parts of ourselves just to get along or to get ahead.
SJ: And then if you add in the fact that you’re a minority female, it intensifies it even more. It’s a weight, a weight. Sometimes when they go, “Oh, you’re the first Black female POW,” the first thing I think of is: that’s not good. I hate it. For over two hundred years, Black females have been contributing to this country. Whether people want to admit it or not, we’ve been participating in conflict. And I’m the only one to get caught in history. That’s what I want to be known for? No. Sometimes I feel guilty for putting that on us. You know, that’s one record they could have kept.
AE: Two years after your book was published, Trayvon Martin was killed, and then there was the acquittal of George Zimmerman the following year and the start of the most recent movement for Black rights. At that time I started leaning into my Black identity and started asking myself, “What does it mean to be a Black American?” I’m not simply Caribbean American. That informs a lot of my culture, but what else don’t I know about this country that I’m literally about to deploy for, and be in a combat zone for? I wanted to know if that influenced you at all, in a similar way, or maybe even differently.
SJ: Well, being from Panama, my great-grandparents contracted with the U.S. government to move from their islands, Jamaica, to work on the canal. But the Canal Zone was American territory. So it was treated just like the U.S., which was segregated. And then they would come to the U.S. in the Sixties. So they knew about segregation, they always told us about it. And although they were in Panama, and they knew of the segregation and the racism in the U.S., they still brought me and my sisters to the U.S. for a chance for more. My dad had a good job in Panama. He was a fireman for eleven years. My mom didn’t work. She was a stay-at-home mom. They had to give all of that up to kind of start again.
AE: I love stories of why people come to this country, but I also like hearing about why we stay. Since I’m the first generation to be born in the U.S., I’m always, like, Why are we here? People don’t like us. Why would we stay, much less risk our lives for this country? When you walk down your unit hallway past the command board, and you’ve got your first sergeant, your company commander, your battalion, up and up and up and up…
SJ: And nobody looks like you.
AE: Right, there’s nobody that looks like you. Because it’s mostly men anyway. The whole time I was in, for the most part, it was Barack Obama’s face on the wall. And for a while I loved seeing it. It was comforting in a way. And then immediately after: Donald Trump’s face was on the wall. And every time I walked past that command board, I just thought, I don’t know if I can do it with his face on the wall. Knowing his affiliations and what he represents, especially for people like us who have families who are recent immigrants who are obviously not white. For me, I was like, what does it take to keep going?
SJ: That face on the wall—oof. And he has no respect for what you do. That’s the thing. He talks and talks but he never had any respect for any soldier. Not at all.
AE: Is there anything you’ve been wanting to say to tell people about what happened to you? How would you tell your story differently?
SJ: I would highlight that I wasn’t alone. The guys were there. I think sometimes people forget that they were there and they struggle also. And that Lori, Lori lost her life. They keep on talking about me and Jessica, but Lori was there too. And that I am a whole person. I am not just that one experience. I’m a mom, I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, hopefully a good friend, I’m a niece, I’m a woman… not just “the POW” or “the Black one.” I have hopes, dreams. I have a temper [laughs]. I am a whole person. And it comes with a lot of different sides.
AE: What are those hopes and dreams? Did you ever go to culinary school? Did you follow that passion after you left the military?
SJ: I did. What my hopes and dreams were back then are totally different from my hopes and dreams now. I went to culinary school, I took culinary classes at my local community college, specializing in pastry. I graduated in 2011. But my dreams for now are just seeing my daughter fulfill her great dreams. I want to travel. And I want to continue to learn the art form of baking and cooking and write a cookbook. That’s something I really want. Gathering my recipes and stuff like that.
AE: How has your relationship with the Army changed over time, especially in public? Looking back on it, how do you feel about the publicity you’ve received?
SJ: I think they’re okay, I mean…
AE: You’ve said that you that you have received hate mail in the past.
SJ: Look, I’ve been in this Black body my whole life. I’m not that naïve to think that there wouldn’t be something negative to come from all the attention I got. And, if anything, I think this pandemic and how it’s become politicized has opened some people’s eyes to the nastiness people are willing to do—the death threats and stuff like that to Dr. Fauci. What is the purpose in that? So if he’s going to get death threats, what makes you think that racist people weren’t gonna send nasty stuff to me? But I think that the thing that hurt my feelings was always getting pushback from people of color. That I didn’t expect, I didn’t expect it at all. So that was really a blow to me. But as a Black female in America, I knew there was gonna be pushback about either my color or my sex being in the job and being in that situation.
AE: How are your injuries?
SJ: The fact that I still have legs is a blessing in itself. I think I have more issues with my PTSD than I do with the physical stuff. But I’m okay. I deal.
AE:There was a lot of handwringing and reflection about the outcome of the War on Terror after the drawdown from Afghanistan this past fall. How did you feel watching the withdrawal?
SJ: I wish the withdrawal of Afghanistan had been a lot smoother, but I agree that it needed to be done. They could’ve done a lot more planning to make it smoother.
AE: Did the outcome of the war change the way you think about it?
SJ: For Afghanistan, no. We changed a lot of lives in Afghanistan. Hopefully they’ll be able to stand and demand the country that they want instead of one that’s being dictated by others. As far as Iraq, I still don’t know what really happened. Saddam and his kids aren’t there, but has it really changed? I don’t know.
AE: Is there anything you would recommend to civilians who don’t quite understand the military, or what it is we do?
SJ: Education. That’s the only way you get to know about other people, their lives, culture and so forth. And the military is a different culture. I think that people need to be open to not just watching the fictitious stuff in the movies and TV but seeing the truth of it by actually interacting with people who join the military and maybe taking the time to read the mundane stuff, not just the salacious stuff. They have to want to learn. And I think a lot of people in this country don’t want to learn because they think that’s not them. They’ll like to say,“thank you” on Veteran’s Day or “we remember” on Memorial Day, but they really kind of disconnect themselves from what needs to be done and what is done every day by men and women who wear the uniform—the sacrifices that are made, not just in wartime but during non-conflict time too.
AE: What is the military for?
SJ: I think it depends on who you are. And your viewpoint. I mean, I think the military for the country is a protection to safeguard our way of life. For the individual it’s up to what you want out of life. The military can be for furthering your education, giving you a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to the people who live in this country, because you come in contact with all kinds of people when you’re in the military. So the military has many purposes, on a larger scale and an individual scale. It’s all different. For civilians it’s just protection of the country, not just in the physical sense, but protection of the ideals of the Constitution itself. Which is why it’s really disheartening to have had so many military people or former military people involved in that January 6th insurrection. There was a point when you put on a uniform to protect the Constitution, American ideals, and then what you did [at the Capitol] went all against the very thing that you had put your life on the line for.
But for me, the military was, or is, a way of life, a way of giving back to a country that I have adopted as my own. It’s been a way of getting to know more people in it, and furthering my education, and growing as an individual.
Image credit: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. Retired Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson at the Fort Bliss POW/MIA National Recognition Day, 2012. Courtesy photo First Armored Division.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.