EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Two small dogs barked playfully and jumped up and down inside the otherwise quiet El Paso suburban home where ex-POW Shoshana Johnson lives with her daughter.
Although the home offers a refuge from the Iraqi battlefield that changed her life 10 years ago, Johnson confesses that she is still haunted by the ghosts of war.
In her living room, Johnson seems comfortable but she tenses up once she starts talking about the war.
“It’s been 10 years and yet it seems like it all happened yesterday,” she said.
Johnson was part of the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss that was ambushed on March 23, 2003, in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Her convoy came under heavy attack from Fedayeen paramilitaries and Iraqi soldiers after the unit made a wrong turn into an enemy urban stronghold.
The 40-year-old retired Army specialist had turned 30 on March 18, 2003, five days before her convoy was attacked.
Johnson and her fellow soldiers had joined the march into Iraq for the U.S. ground offensive and soon found themselves in the middle of a fierce
firefight they never expected. Johnson was a cook in the support unit. Neither she nor the others were combat soldiers.
The former Army specialist, who prefers to describe herself as Panamanian American, is the first African-American woman POW. She suffered incapacitating injuries after a single shot from an Iraqi passed through both of her ankles.
“I was bleeding and my boots filled up with blood,” she said. “After my boots were removed, I couldn’t believe that the raw wounds with all the gore were really mine.”
Janelle, her 12-year-old daughter, was 2 years old when the single mother was taken prisoner during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At one point during the attack, which lasted about 90 minutes, Johnson said, she managed to fire her M-16 rifle at an Iraqi but missed. After she was wounded, she handed her rifle to Sgt. James Riley because his own had malfunctioned.
She said the constant weapons malfunctions, which an Army report later said likely occurred because of a lack of maintenance, probably cost some of the 507th soldiers their lives.
Johnson still questions why she and the soldiers had been instructed to wrap their rifle magazines with duct tape, which melted in the harsh Iraqi desert heat. The main rifle malfunction was that the rounds wouldn’t load from the magazines into the rifle chambers.
After the ambush was over, Iraqis dragged Johnson out from under a military vehicle by her feet. The pain from her injuries was excruciating and it would be days before she would have surgery to reduce the chances of serious infection and possible amputation.
She also endured embarrassing moments such as having to ask the male guards for toilet paper after using up pieces of a T-shirt and asking them for help in getting to a toilet.
During her captivity, Johnson said, she was interrogated by Iraqis and gave them her nickname to defuse their suspicions of her.
“I told them my name was ‘Shana’ because ‘Shoshana’ is a Hebrew name and I thought it would really go worse for me if they thought I was Jewish,’’ she said. In the Hebrew language, “Shoshana” means “lily rose.”
During her 22-day captivity, the Panamanian government tried to help Johnson, who was born in Panama, by offering to have the Iraqi government release her to Panama.
“I’m grateful that they cared about me,” she said.
Johnson said she believes the military could have done more to prevent the unit from taking so many casualties, such as providing an escort of combat troops to make sure the end of the convoy made it safely to its destination.
And she doesn’t blame anyone in the unit.
“Many things went wrong that day,” she said. “It was not one thing.”
Johnson sees a therapist regularly and stays in touch with several of the former 507th members. She also corresponds with one of the Marines who rescued the POWs on April 13, 2003, in Samarra, Iraq.
“They showed up like in those action movies. They broke down the door and busted inside with their weapons aimed,” Johnson said. “They had everyone get down on the floor. They asked us to stand up if we were Americans. I knew then that we were going home.”
Curney Russell was 18 years old and a lance corporal in the Marines when he took part in the rescue. He is still in the Marines and is stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“That day will be something that will forever stay in my mind,” Russell said. “The fact that we were able to send seven Americans home and give them a second opportunity at life after the mental and physical torture that they had to endure is something the Marines of Delta Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, should forever be proud of.
“Our company’s fate was still uncertain after that mission but we knew that, because of the events of that day, these POWs were on their way home to the families that desperately longed to see them.”
In addition to the five 507th POWs, the Marines rescued two U.S. helicopter pilots who were being held by the Iraqis in the same facility.
Johnson said that what continues to haunt her the most is why she survived at all.
“I lived while many good people died that day,” she said. “Our society is less better off because they’re gone. I can’t get over this.”
Her father, Army veteran Claude Johnson, still worries about his daughter.
“Post-traumatic stress syndrome can have long-lasting effects,” he said. “I know of veterans who have had flashbacks many years after they left the battlefield. I don’t want people to think that all is well with Shoshana just because they see her smiling and laughing. She still has some serious issues to deal with.”
The father said he believes it’s good that his daughter decided to leave the military and that she stays in touch with her former comrades.
“They probably open up with each other a lot more than they do with anyone else,” he said. “They probably are the only ones who really understand what they went through.”
Shoshana Johnson is often invited to speak at conferences and other events and at times she has appeared in public events with prominent people such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
However, she said, her most treasured moment was when she was invited to be the keynote graduation speaker for her alma mater, Andress High School. She was enrolled in the Junior ROTC program while at Andress and learned to shoot a rifle when she was 17.
“They presented me with a letterman’s jacket; it was so neat,” she said.
The ex-POW recounted her dramatic story in the book I’m Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldiers to Free Citizen — My Journey Home (Simon & Schuster’s Touchtone; 2010), with ghost writer M.L. Doyle.
The book, which did not come with a big advance or a movie-rights deal, received enthusiastic reviews from readers.
“I’m not collecting any royalties yet and the advance went to pay the ghost writer and others involved in the project,” she said.
Johnson, who at first was offered a 30 percent disability to retire, was encouraged to seek a higher percentage of disability.
Eventually, she was granted a 40 percent disability from the Army and a 100 percent disability from Veterans Affairs. The income amounts are based on her rank, time in service and extent of injuries.
“It was Lori Piestewa’s family’s efforts that actually helped me to get a higher disability percentage,” Johnson said. Pfc. Lori Piestewa was killed when her vehicle crashed during the 2003 ambush.
Looking to the future, Johnson said she hopes to land work as a chef or in some other job that involves cooking, which has always been her passion.
“I completed the culinary art program at El Paso Community College and, if I write another book, it will be a cookbook,” she said, as her two dogs hopped on the sofa, begging for her attention.
“They’re part of my therapy,” she said.