The Forgotten POW
Trymaine Lee: On March 23rd, 2003, Private First Class Jessica Lynch was captured during the Iraq war. She was badly injured and held in an Iraqi hospital for nine days. News of her capture and subsequent rescue gripped America.
Reporter: Former POW Jessica Lynch is recording today at a military hospital in Germany.
Reporter: The pretty teenager ambushed, held captive, and then rescued in daring fashion. She is a new American hero.
Reporter: But it's unclear whether she's aware of her overnight celebrity.
Lee: NBC even made a TV movie about her called Saving Jessica Lynch
Actor: Jessica. Jessica Lynch. United States soldiers are here to take ya home.
Lee: But Jessica was not the only soldier captured on that day back in 2003. Five other Americans were held in captivity, including U.S. Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson who had recently joined the military.
Shoshana Johnson: And I thought, "Okay. Just do the job and come home." I never thought 30 days later I'd be a POW.
Lee: While the media fawned over Lynch, a young, blonde, white woman from we've, Shoshana Johnson, a Black woman born in Panama and raised in Texas, went largely ignored. That's despite the fact that military service is in her bones.
Johnson: I actually just came back from-- visiting my Great Uncle Al, 90 years old, still kickin'.
Lee: There we go.
Johnson: And we talk, you know, veteran to veteran. And he talks about the struggle. Comin' to the U.S., bein' a Black man, and serving, yet still being held back simply for the color of your skin.
Lee: Black people like Shoshana, her great uncle, and other members of her family have been serving in the U.S. military for centuries. There was the first Rhode Island regiment, the all-Black unit who fought in the Revolutionary War. And then the Civil War, the Black soldiers in the Union Army helped turn the tide against the confederacy.
And despite Lincoln getting all of the credit, these Black men helped free their own people from bondage. Black soldiers have always been there, hundreds, thousands of them, both free and enslaved, risking their lives and winning battles for America before this country was even fully formed, fighting for this country's freedom and liberty when they themselves were denied the same freedoms.
I can't help but think of Harriet Tubman who became a soldier and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Tubman was the first woman, not the first Black woman, the first woman to ever lead combat troops in the U.S. She gathered intel behind enemy lines, led raids to help free hundreds of people, and recruited some of them into the Army, all with no compensation.
I also think of the Tuskegee airmen during World War II, also known as the Red Tails, the first Black Air Force pilots to man planes after the military dropped its policy of keeping them out of the cockpit. And then of course I think about the Vietnam War.
It was the first war in which Black and white troops were not segregated. But in the height of the war, Black men were overrepresented in the draft, and were far more likely to see combat. American history is littered with stories of Black people who sacrificed for the flag, who gave so much to a country that didn't always give back. And Shoshana Johnson is one of them.
Johnson: Freedom has a taste the protected will never know.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. For Veterans Day, the story of Shoshana Johnson, the first Black female prisoner of war, and the courage, struggle, and sacrifice of what it means to be a Black patriot. Former Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson is 48 years old. We caught up with Shoshana at her house in El Paso. And thank you very much, Shoshana, for all the time. We really do appreciate it.
Johnson: No problem. I hope it works out okay.
Lee: No, it's great.
Johnson: I had to push my fish in the oven. I'm cookin' lunch for the gentleman.
Lee: Ah, (LAUGH) ain't that little lucky him. Get some of that good Texas home cookin'. (LAUGH) A TV crew also came for the interview, and Shoshana was making them lunch. Clearly, I was just a little bit jealous. So, Shoshana, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Johnson: What is there to say? I am a Black female immigrant from the Republic of Panama. Army veteran, mom, sister, daughter, friend, I hope. (LAUGHTER) I hope I'm a good friend.
Lee: Shoshana's parents immigrated from Panama when she was a little girl. Once they got to the U.S., her dad joined the Army and served for 21 years. His job took them all over, but El Paso was often home.
Johnson: I'm the oldest of three girls from Claude and Eunice Johnson. Claude and Eunice had a house full of females. (LAUGH) Drill Sergeant Johnson was very strict, but we always felt the love. My dad made a point of telling me and my sisters that he loved us and that he did things for us to be able to dream big and accomplish.
Lee: A military man, 20 years. What was your, like, experience with that growin' up in that household? But also, what was your perception of the military, havin' a father that had served so long?
Johnson: Being immigrants, there's a certain way in our culture that you do and don't do. And my parents really reinforced the old school mentality: Showing proper respect, but also encouraging us to think outside the box, especially as Black females.
He always told us, you know, "You got two strikes against you: You're Black, and you're female. So you have to be smarter, you have to be faster at everything you do." As a drill sergeant, he would, like, give certain orders. But my mom was always the one, "Hey, hey, hey. You ain't got no soldiers up in here." (LAUGH) You got daughters.
Lee: Mmm. Now, he was a Black man in the military. How do you think his Blackness and bein' a Black man shaped his experience? And did he ever talk about that?
Johnson: Sometimes you could see it, you know? My dad worked extremely hard, and you could see how he was, like, sometimes the best person, highly starched uniform, shined boots, yet that promotion was not coming as quick. And that was a struggle. But also, he made it clear that being in the U.S., he had more of a fighting chance than he did at home.
Lee: Shoshana says she always wanted to follow her dad's footsteps and join the military, but her parents insisted she go to college first. So she did, but maybe had a little too much fun.
Johnson: Drill Sergeant Johnson was strict. So once I got that freedom, you know, that freshman year in college, I had a really good time. (UNINTEL) parties were the bomb. (LAUGH) I had a wonderful time in college, and my grades reflected that.
Lee: Shoshana dropped out. She kicked around for a bit and decided maybe culinary school could be next.
Johnson: You know, my parents were like, "That's wonderful. But you messed around the first time; you're gonna have to figure out how you're gonna pay for it on your own. You're gonna have to learn that struggle." And I went to the military. It was what I really wanted to do in the first place. And I said, "Well, I know how to make it happen."
Lee: So in the fall of 1998, Shoshana enlisted in the Army. She was sent to Fort Jackson, North Carolina, for basic training.
Johnson: It was a struggle. I was 25 years old. I never ran two miles in my life.
Lee: Talkin' about you wanna be a soldier though.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah. (LAUGH) I fractured my foot a couple weeks in. So instead of it takin' eight weeks to go basic trainin', it took me six months 'cause I had to rehab and then go back into it. But I was determined. I was not gonna quit. I was gonna finish this. And I remember my parents coming to the basic training graduation. They were like, "Oh Lord, thank god she finished somethin'," you know? (LAUGH)
Lee: Shoshana ended up as an Army specialist, working as a cook. She was stationed in Colorado Springs, and later in Texas. But then on 9/11, everything changed. President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, and in early 2003, the U.S. was poised to invade Iraq. And Shoshana started hearing rumors about deployment.
Johnson: I came home to El Paso. I requested to be stationed at Fort Bliss 'cause I had a two-year-old daughter. So my parents were there to help me out. We started gettin' word. You know, you hear things through the grapevine, "We gonna deploy. We gonna deploy." And I was like, "Ugh. I got a baby. I ain't deployin'." (LAUGH)
But, you know, when it comes down to it, I signed on the dotted line. Nobody forced me. I went. And I really didn't think it was a big deal. My sister had just gotten back from her deployment. You know, my dad had gone to Desert Storm. My uncle had gone to Desert Storm. My aunt, you know.
It was no big deal for us. We just got up and I remember going to the family center while we were sayin' bye to my parents, my sister, my daughter. My parents were like, "Okay, we'll see you in a couple months," and everything.
Lee: Shoshana and her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, arrived in Kuwait in February 2003, once month before the U.S. invaded Iraq. She was 30 years old.
Johnson: And I thought, "Okay." I was gonna save some money. I was gonna lose some weight, (LAUGH) you know? That was basically it, just do the job and come home.
Lee: Wow. But then you get there. Did things change immediately?
Johnson: No, not even. We got in to Kuwait and they had the little tent cities and stuff like that. And I didn't think anything of it. I'm a cook in a maintenance unit for patriot missiles. Patriot missiles have to stay so far back in order to shoot down enemy missiles. And I'm the maintenance unit that, you know, helped them take care of that. It never occurred to me that I'd be even leavin' Kuwait to go to Iraq. And I remember when they said, "Okay, we're about to pack up and move," I said, "Move where? Where are goin'?"
Lee: (LAUGH) Right. Right. Wow.
Johnson: And I remember my NCO said, "I don't know, Johnson. They just tellin' us we movin'." I was like, "Oh Lord." And I remember writing my dad, sending an email, and I said, "I don't trust my leadership."
Johnson: "I don't trust my leadership."
Lee: You don't trust your lead-- what did that mean?
Johnson: I mean, military family. Although I'm a cook, I know, you know, how things work. And it didn't make sense. And I'm not talking about, like, my immediate leadership, my company, or stuff like that, because things go way higher than that. But it didn't make sense for us to be moving this far into Iraq. It didn't make sense to me. There was a trust issue for me.
Lee: The Iraq war began on March 20th, 2003. Just three days later, Shoshana and her unit were part of a large convoy that was heading for the City of Nasiriyah. So what day did this ambush happen, do you remember the exact day?
Johnson: March 23rd, 2003, a Sunday mornin'. We're rolling in heavy, heavy vehicles, and that sand, if you get caught up, them tires just keep rollin' and rollin'. Once we started movin', you know, you see vehicles gettin' bogged down. And I remember they were stopping, trying to get a vehicle out.
And I was like, "Didn't they tell us to just drop the vehicle and leave and, you know, keep going?" We ended up falling so far behind. As we go into the City of Nasiriyah, the sun was coming up. And then we get, like, good ways into the city and we end up turnin' around.
And, you know, we stop for a second and they said, you know, "The city isn't secure. We gotta get outta here." So we rolled back around. And then that's when the ambush started. They cut down our small convoy into three sections. You could hear gunfire and so forth.
I remember my vehicle gets disabled. My sergeant comes running up and I'm like, "Okay, what do we do?" I jump out the vehicle. He's like, "Take cover." We get underneath the vehicle. I get shot. Hernandez gets shot. Sergeant Riley, you know, asked for my weapon, 'cause his had jammed.
And I remember distinctly, I handed him my weapon badly, and it caught sand in it, so it jammed. And then he was like, you know, "We can't return fire. We can't defend ourselves." He goes, "We're gonna have to surrender." And he says, "They've got Miller already."
So he goes up from underneath the vehicle with his hands up. And I'm thinkin' to myself, "They're gonna mow him down." And they didn't. And then Hernandez goes, and then I could feel them pull me by my legs from underneath the vehicle.
And they start wailing on us. I mean, they give us a good whooppin', the ends of the rifles, kicking and stuff. And then my Kevlar, my helmet, falls off and my braids come out. They, like, step back in shock. They notice I'm a female. And they back off. And they drag move over to a vehicle, throw me in the back, and separate me from the men.
Lee: Mmm. That sounds like a terrifying experience.
Johnson: It was.
Lee: What were you goin' through, in that moment? Were you thinking that this could be it?
Johnson: Yeah. Because there was a point, underneath the vehicle, where a RPG comes close. And I turned my head because I know it's gonna go off, and it's a dud. And I was like, "Oh god." Then as we go through, I'm like, "Oh my god, this is it." And then I was like, "No. I made it this far. I made it this far." And through my whole captivity, that's what goes through. "Oh my god, this is it." And then I said, "No, I made it this far. There's a reason." You know, so my mind keep goin' through that story, through the whole thing.
Johnson: We were moved around seven times. We went from prisons to jails and there's a point where they kept us in people's homes. And that's the scary part because they're lookin' for us. They can't search every home in Iraq.
Lee: How many of you all were captured, and how many of you were being moved place to place? Were you kept in the same facility, or how did that work?
Johnson: From 507th Maintenance Company, it was me, Joseph Hudson, James Riley, Patrick Miller, and Edgar Hernandez. We were captured immediately and taken and separated. When they went back to check the vehicles, they found Jessica alive and took her to the hospital in Nasiriyah.
Me and the guys were driven to Baghdad for interrogations, and put into prison. Later on that night, two Apache pilots were shot down and joined us in captivity. For the duration of my captivity, we are all kept in separate cells. But as they moved us, they would start to put the men together and keep me separate.
It was only in the last two places that I was put with the men and I actually got to see them. During the captivity, we tried to talk to each other and stuff like that as much as we could, but most of the time, I was alone. I had long talks with God, (LAUGH) you know. I thought about every wrong I ever did and, you know, prayed for forgiveness.
But I really, really wanted to see my daughter grow up. That was a big thing for me. I didn't have to worry about her care, 'cause I know my parents, I know my family. Not just my parents, my sister, my aunts, my cousins; I knew she was good, gonna be well taken care of. And she would always remember me. But I wanted to be there for the big moments.
Lee: Were there moments in this ordeal, you'd been moved from facilities to people's homes, where you seriously thought that you might not make it back stateside to see your daughter? Were there, like, real moments where you said, "You know what? This might be it"?
Johnson: Two big incidents. The U.S. was bombing Baghdad and they dropped a bomb close to my prison.
Lee: Ah, man.
Johnson: And it blew the roof off, part of the roof up, and everything. And one of the first things that happened is the guards took off and left us there, locked in our cells. So I was like, "Are they gonna come back?" (LAUGH)
Lee: That's crazy.
Johnson: "We're locked in cells. Are they gonna come back? Or what's gonna happen?" So that was a close one. And then one of the times they were movin' us in the middle of a firefight. So we're in the van as they're moving us, and we could hear the firefight going on between the U.S. and Iraqi forces. I mean, and they were barely missing us. And you couldn't tell who was missing us, the Americans or the Iraqis. So I was like, "Man, wouldn't it be somethin' if I end up dyin' by friendly fire?"
Lee: Talk to us about your injuries. You were shot, but talk about your injuries.
Johnson: I was shot in both legs. We still don't know if it was one bullet that hit both legs, or two bullets. It went through the calf of the right leg, tearing up the Achilles. On the left leg, it went through the ankle, fracturing a bone. I still got my legs though. I'm blessed.
I got medical care from the Iraqis. I don't know if I would have been able to either survive or even keep my legs if they hadn't given me proper medical care. I didn't realize how much damage was done. They did a surgery.
Lee: They did surgery on you? Like, the Iraqis--
Johnson: Yes. First time I've ever had surgery in my life. And they put underneath general anesthesia.
Johnson: And at the time, Baghdad was bein' bombed. I remember bein' in that hospital and the building rattling because the bombs are droppin'. And they put me under the general anesthesia to fix my legs. I don't know why they did it, but I'm thankful that they did.
Lee: Hmm. So all these years later, there are layers from which to view the entire experience, right? And you went through this. And after spending all those days in captivity, talk about the moment you were finally freed, and how that happened.
Johnson: Sunday morning, Palm Sunday, they were givin' us breakfast, and the door got kicked in. Talkin' about, "Get down, get down," and I was so happy. I knew I was goin' home. The Marines got control of the room, hustled us out of that house, and I remember I was holdin' on. I said, "Because I'm not gonna be the first one to cry."
As the only female, I was like, "I'm not gonna be the first one to cry. That dam ain't gonna burst yet." They said, you know, "Make a run for that vehicle right there," and that's when I broke down and I was like, "I can't run. My legs are (LAUGH) messed up." And a marine wrapped their arm around me, and half carried, half dragged me to that vehicle to make sure I got in and they got us to safety. I can't explain the joy. And I'm still in contact with quite a few of them marines too.
Lee: That's all right. I mean, lookin' around like, "Yo, is this real?" Like-- (LAUGH)
Johnson: It's like a movie. It was really like a movie, the drama. It was very dramatic. And I'm eternally grateful for those marines.
Johnson: They were just awesome.
Lee: By the time she was rescued, Shoshana had been in captivity for 22 days. A handful of you all were captured, but how many didn't make it out of that initial firefight, initial ambush?
Johnson: Eleven died, nine from my unit and two others that were with us.
Lee: How do you balance that gratefulness of surviving, even though you're wounded, but knowing that so many of your fellow soldiers, you know, were killed?
Johnson: I don't think I do. I still feel a lotta guilt. They were good people. Nineteen, 18, you know, 21. James Keele (PH), his wife was pregnant, you know? His son was born after he died. They were young, extremely young. And, you know, a question I asked myself, Lori Ann Piestewa, a Native American female that died, the first Native American female prisoner of war, and she had two kids. And our daughters are the same age. So why did I come home and she didn't? You know? I'm sorry.
Lee: No, of course. All these years later, talkin' about your fellow soldiers still brings you to tears.
Johnson: 'Cause they were awesome people. You know, people you fussed and fight with, but people who had my back. Who had my back, you know? I can't explain how that feels, to know that you're going into this, and people are tryin' to kill you. Yet the person to my left and the person to my right are willing to die to help me get there.
I think of those marines that came to the rescue, who took a chance. The intel wasn't sound. They took a chance with their own lives so I can go home to raise my child. I think people like to say, "Thank you for your service," and don't understand what it is that these men and women do. There are points in time when you think you can give your life, maybe give a limb. And for some of them, for some of 'em, it feels like they're givin' a part of their soul to do what they do every day.
Lee: We throw around the word "sacrifice" easily, and "hero" easily. But that sounds like real sacrifi-- I don't think I fully understand the word "sacrifice." When you hear that, I don't know if we are using it the right way.
Johnson: You know, there's a saying from a Vietnam POW, and I'm paraphrasing 'cause I don't know if it exactly. "Freedom has a taste the protected will never know."
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: After Shoshana and the other soldiers were captured in March of 2003, a video was released by Iraqi soldiers. You can see Shoshana as they interrogate her, her eyes darting around anxiously.
Soldier: What's your name?
Soldier: Where do you come from?
Soldier: You come from Texas?
Lee: Shoshana's father was flipping through the channels, looking for cartoons to show her daughter, when he saw that video on the news. That's how he learned Shoshana, his firstborn, was a prisoner of war. For Shoshana's family, that was the last image they had of her until her rescue.
Reporter: Well, here's Shoshana today, being taken into custody by U.S. marines north of Baghdad. And she and the other seven POWs are reportedly on their way to Kuwait. They're gonna get medical attention. And we hope, as soon as is feasible, they'll have a chance to speak to their families. But Claude and Eunice Johnson couldn't even bear to watch the reruns of that tape of their daughter. Well, I'm sure they're gonna be looking at the tape and the pictures of her being brought back to safety. And that will--
Johnson: I remember we get to Doha, Kuwait. And, you know, we're gettin' later in the evening, and I'm the only one that hasn't talked to their family. And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, what is goin' on?" You know? And I was upset and everything, and they finally get ahold of my parents. Oh. (SIGH) And, you know, I break down and talk to my parents.
And I was like, "Where were y'all?" And my mom was like, "We were doin' a interview." I said, "Ma." (LAUGHTER) And I was like, "Ma. You didn't even know." She goes, "Of course we did. Congressman Reyes and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison had already called us when we got the first report of the rescue."
So my congressman, and this is a good thing, my Democrat congressman, my Republican senator, had contacted my family when they first got reports. And I'm proud of my representatives at the time who took care of my family like they're supposed to do.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Johnson: You know? That's what you're supposed to do. (LAUGH)
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Johnson: So they knew I was okay, (LAUGH) but I was still mad. I was like, "Look, y'all could have talked to me first before you--" (LAUGH)
Lee: Right. Right. (LAUGH) Well, what was that conversation like? I mean, finally bein' safe and talkin' to them, what was that conversation like?
Johnson: (SIGH) It was surreal. Actually, y'all at NBC got a copy of it because I didn't know, at the time, (LAUGH) that NBC I guess Stone Phillips and all them were at my house, my parents' house.
Reporter: Just imagine what it was like for the family of Specialist Shoshana Johnson. Last night, Dateline NBC's Stone Phillips talked to her family after they had a reunion by phone.
Father: For me, all I wanted was to hear her voice.
Father: And shortly after I heard her voice, and she said, "Dad," and that was it.
Father: Shona. How are you?
Johnson: I'm okay.
Father: It is so, so very good to hear from you. Besides the wounds, you all right?
Johnson: (UNINTEL) (CRYING) Where's Mom?
Father: Right here. Hold on. She's crying.
Mother: Sho? Hey, Shona? Hey, but you're all right, Mama. Shona, you're all right, okay? All you have to do is thank the Lord, okay?
Johnson: It was emotional talkin'. And then I got to talk to my daughter.
Father: You wanna talk to Mommy?
Mother: Hold on, I got a little voice for you. That's Mommy.
Father: Hello, Mommy.
Janelle: Hi, Mommy. I love Mommy--
Johnson: Hi, Janelle. And she was like, you know, "You got a owie." And I was like, "Yeah, I do, sweetie."
Lee: How old was your daughter then?
Lee: Oh wow. A little baby.
Johnson: She was two years. Yeah.
Lee: I know it's heart wrenching to listen to that call again, all these years later. But there was this one kinda really touching moment that I had to ask her about.
Mother: Her main worry was people takin' her picture and her hair looked terrible. (LAUGHTER)
Johnson: I did complain to my mom about my hair because I had seen some of the pictures they had taken as the marine is escorting me off the helicopter.
Mother: (LAUGHTER) Shona, you worryin' about your hair? Miss Lawson (PH) would braid that hair right back up--
Johnson: --my hair. People are takin' pictures and (UNINTEL)--
Mother: Mama, that's the least of your worries. She worryin' about her hair.
Johnson: Of course I did not know it was bein' recorded or I wouldn't have said such things. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: You survived all this, and you're like, "My hair look a little rough." (LAUGH)
Johnson: A little rough? It was tore up.
Lee: I bet. (LAUGH) I bet. So you're safe, you're connecting with your family. And I wonder, sometimes we talk about this idea of things that happen in the fog of war. And just, like, you're in it and there's firefights and you're bein' rescued, and then you get back. What was it like getting back to the military? Like, you had been out in the field and had been held hostage, and now you're back. What was it like?
Johnson: It wasn't that great, you know. I was dealing with a lot physically and mentally. But, you know, we got a lot of attention when we got home. And not everybody was okay with that, you know. So we had to deal with the little, you know, jealousy issues, which I think is ridiculous.
Lee: Yeah, what do you--
Johnson: The petty--
Lee: What do you mean? Like, how did that play out like in real time, and you're there? How did that actually play out?
Johnson: You know, there was a incident where I had a senior person file a complaint against me, you know. I had housing on post and I shouldn't have because my parents had my daughter or somethin' like that.
Johnson: I was like, "Are you for real?"
Lee: Shoshana says this senior person accused her of fraud, claiming that she was lying about having her daughter living with her on the base in order to get better housing. She told me her daughter would stay with her parents while she worked and traveled, but that was it.
Johnson: She lived with me.
Lee: What is that about, do you think? Were other people treated like that? And again, not just necessarily put it squarely back on racism, you know, doing what it does, but how much of it was about you bein' a Black woman, you think?
Johnson: For that incident, I know it was because I was a Black woman. I knew who it was, you know. And I know who he is. So that one was definitely about bein' a Black female. There were other little things that the men endured too. You know, they're gettin' an attitude because we got to go on little stuff and represent the military and stuff like that. The guys got the pushback too.
Lee: There were other things like that that Shoshana noticed when she got back, like having to advocate for her benefits.
Johnson: Yeah, I had to fight hard. There was a incident when they were givin' me my medical retirement, and they had categorized one of my gunshot wounds as arthritis. And then they wouldn't recognize my PTSD. Now, they medicated me for it, enough so I can go and put on a uniform and represent the Army do certain things, but they wouldn't acknowledge it. And that was the bottom line for me. You're gonna acknowledge that this was hard. I remember part of the paperwork saying, "I know your time in Iraq was trying."
Lee: (LAUGH) Hold on. I don't wanna laugh at this. This is not funny, it's not humorous. Your time in Iraq was "trying"?
Johnson: Yes. Yes. "I know your time in Iraq was trying, but condition A, PTSD, is not rateable." I was like-- and I have that in writing. I kept that paperwork. (LAUGH)
Lee: How angry-- and I'm angry now. Hearing this, I'm angry. How angry were you? "Trying." "I was a prisoner of war, I was shot in my legs."
Johnson: I was hot. I was hot, you know. And that was when I had to say, "Okay, enough. Enough." And I kept pushing until they acknowledged it. They had to acknowledge it. And that became the thing with me and Lynch, they acknowledged hers and they wouldn't acknowledge mine.
And I want people to understand that's not her fault, that's the powers that be and the people who decided that her event was so much more traumatic than my event. I'm not tryin' to say we were the same, but give me the respect I'm due for enduring what I had to endure.
Lee: I think it many people, those of us who remember that time, you know, will remember Jessica Lynch, a white woman captured around the same time. Books and movies. You know, per the way America moves, if a Black woman goes missing, we don't know that Black woman's name. The blonde-haired white girl, everybody's trippin' over ourselves, "We gotta find her."
How did it play out in this situation, in your scenario? You were captured, Jessica Lynch was captured. How did you see this playing out, the way you were treated and the way the media, the military, America responded to you, and how they responded to Jessica Lynch?
Johnson: I think for the military aspect, I think people need to understand that Jessica and I were in the same unit and captured the same day, but we are kept separate. So when they rescued Jessica, a lot of 'em thought we were already dead. So they played up her rescue to make themselves, "We got one. We rescued her," this and that.
So that became a issue with the military. But as far as the media coverage, that is what it is. You know, just as you said, you know, when they played up the, you know, petite little blonde girl and, "Oh my gosh." And what is it? "Fighting till all her bullets were left (SIC)," which never happened.
Lee: The story was that she was just Rambo, just--
Johnson: Not happened.
Lee: Hmm. After Lynch was rescued, an unnamed Pentagon official told the press that Lynch had been fighting to the death before she was captured.
Reporter: A report that Jessica shot several Iraqi soldiers before she was captured, even after she herself was shot.
Lee: These stories turned out to be false. Lynch had actually been knocked unconscious when her vehicle was attacked, and woke up in the hospital with crushed legs and a broken back. Lynch, who was medically discharged in August 2003, has been vocal in criticizing the military and press for these distortions.
Johnson: The media plays up what they want to play up. So there was some of it that I backed away from, I'm not gonna lie. It became too much and I had to back away. But also, we as Black people need to look deeper within ourselves. I wasn't on the cover of Jet or Ebony or Essence either.
Lee: Mmm. Have you ever had a conversation with Jessica about any of this, or just generally?
Johnson: We do talk about it every once in a while. I remember 2010, my book came out. There was a lotta hate, a lotta hate. And I spoke to her directly about the hate because I know she experienced some of that. I remember her telling me explicitly, "Johnson, there's nobody that can correct you about what happened to you except us.
"Have any of us said anything to you that says you didn't say something that wasn't true and stuff like that," and I said, "No." She goes, "Then ignore them. You know what happened, you know your truth." And I will always take that with me, because she's right.
Nobody can correct me except for those six guys that were with me and served with me. So she was like, you know, "No matter what they say on the outside," you know, basically, "You know who you are. You know what you did. Don't let all that noise get in your head." But I appreciate her always for givin' me that insight. Gotta shake 'em off.
Lee: Now, you mentioned a name earlier that I wanna circle back to is Lori.
Lee: And this idea of who's worthy of attention, who isn't. Who gets the attention, all the noise surrounding all the folks who gave this ultimate sacrifice. And I want you to talk about Lori because that's a name that I don't think most people have heard before in this situation.
Johnson: Lori Ann Piestewa. She is a Hopi, a member of the Hopi tribe of Arizona. She died of her wounds in Iraq durin' the ambush. A mother of two children, Carla and Brandon. She was so sweet, so genuine, and so funny. And not just Lori, her whole family.
I remember they would do the memorial for Lori because they renamed a mountain in Arizona after Lori. It was called Squaw Peak, which is a derogatory name for Native American women, and they renamed it Piestewa Peak in her honor. And I was invited every year, and it took about three years or four years before I would actually go because the anxiety about seeing her family and knowing that I lived and she died was a lot for me.
And I remember getting there for the first time, and I started to cry. And her mom just embraced me and said, "Stop it. We are so blessed that you are still with us." And what that family does, and they had been doing, was inviting parents who lost their children in Afghanistan and Iraq to come together and help each other heal, as a place of healing.
So that entire family just has a way about them to open their arms and make you feel at ease, and help you through the day. My experiences with them helped me mentally. I can't even describe the words, how much they helped me heal as a whole.
Johnson: But people don't know her name, and they should, you know. She made a great sacrifice. And as a Native American woman, given this country's history, the fact that she was willin' to put on the uniform and she died for this flag that thought she, you know-- ah. It's unbelievable. I mean, even when they were renaming the mountain after her, people protested it. People protested that, talking about, "We should like--"
Johnson: --"leave Squaw Peak alone." I was like, "It's derogatory." "Oh, there's nothin' wrong with the name." I said, "Because it doesn't relate to you."
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Johnson: That's what it is.
Lee: And you talk about her as a Native American, or even us Black people who serve. It's almost like the most American people of all are the most marginalized.
Lee: Her sacrifice and what she was fighting for is quintessentially the most American. And the response, that should be deemed as the un-American part.
Johnson: Yes, absolutely. Goes back to that, "Oh, thank you for your service," but you really don't mean (LAUGH) it, you know? You still wanna refer to a mountain that derogatory "squaw" instead of giving it a warrior's name of the woman that sacrificed everything.
You know, you still want to look at me sideways instead of recognizing that I put on a uniform and made my sacrifices also. I got a email from a gentleman who said how angry he was that a Negress like me was collecting benefits. He didn't say one word about my service, that I dishonored the uniform, or anything like that. It was just the fact that I was collecting benefits that I earned. That I earned.
You know, I could understand some of 'em say, "Well, you didn't do (UNINTEL) service." And we can argue back and forth about that. But his only thing was that I was a Black female collecting my disability and all that kinda stuff for my service.
Lee: Shoshana was medically discharged in December of 2003. She had served in the Army for five years. She was awarded the bronze star for heroic achievement, the purple heart, and the prisoner of war medal. Today, Shoshana is retired and spends her time volunteering and traveling as much as possible.
And that wish she had when she was captured, she did get to see her daughter, Janelle, grow up. Janelle is 21. She's in college now at the University of Texas at Permian Basin in Odessa, about four hours away from El Paso, so life is pretty good. But Shoshana still struggles with PTSD.
Johnson: I've learned through the years in continued therapy how to deal and navigate my issues, but it's always gonna be there. And I think that's something I had to learn. It's not gonna disappear. It's a weight that I'll carry with me to my end.
But it's how you carry the weight, how you deal with the ups and downs. And how you live your life going forward. I think one of the best things I've learned, especially with feeling the guilt of surviving, is they wouldn't want me to just hide in a corner.
And I did that for a lotta years, locking myself in the house and not wanting to talk, and just not wanting to be. That's not what they would want for me, especially Lori. She (LAUGH) would have probably told me to take my head outta my ass and just keep goin'. (LAUGHTER) You know, and get up and do somethin'.
Lee: Shoshana still bears wounds, physical and mental, from her service. But these days, when Shoshana thinks of her fallen comrades, she also feels a sense of purpose.
Johnson: Every time I start to feel the weight of it, I have to think, "Is that what they would want for me? Is that why I'm still here?" So I just have to share the story. I hope it helps others, other veterans. Hope it helps civilians understand the veteran community a little better, the female veteran community. And especially the Black female veteran community, there are so few of us. And sometimes they just don't grasp what it's like. But if we don't share the story, then they'll never get it.
Lee: Well, Shoshana, thank you so much for your time, your sacrifice. And it's an honor and a privilege to be able to lift your name and your experience--
Johnson: Don't start all that. (LAUGH)
Lee: And center your experience. So thank you so very much.
Johnson: Thank you so much. Now I gotta go turn on the oven on my fish. (LAUGH)
Lee: You can learn more about Shoshana's story in her book, I'm Still Standing. And you can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. Or write to us: IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That was IntoAmerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I dot-com.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks this week to Stefanie Cargill along with Gary Boyer and Allen Green. I'm Trymaine Lee. Big shout to our veterans out there. We'll see you next Thursday.