Within a week of the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction and oust then-President Saddam Hussein, Iraqi forces ambushed a convoy and captured a number of U.S. Army soldiers near Naisiriyah. Spec. Shoshana Nyree Johnson and a dozen soldiers captured on March 23, 2003, and held captive until Marines freed them a month later. The Panamanian native whose family immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old spoke at a Virtual Women Veterans Conference hosted by the Nevada Department of Veterans Services. The theme of this year’s conference explored and honored the strength, courage and resilience of women veterans.
Shoshana Nyree Johnson
Johnson is a second-generation veteran. After her family moved to the United States, her father enlisted in the Army and spent a career serving his new nation. Johnson, who took Junior ROTC in high school, told attendees on the virtual conference her family stressed education, so she didn’t enlist in the Army until 1998 when she was 25 years old. Her basic training, though, took six months to complete because she fractured her foot. Five years later, she found herself in Iraq with her unit, the Fort Carson-based Maintenance Company, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and she was a cook in an Air Defense Artillery unit. Johnson, the first black woman in the history of the U.S. military held as a prisoner of war, turned to her thoughts to the month in captivity, and the bullet wound to her ankles. Johnson relied on her faith to survive her ordeal. “As military people, we always know injuries are always possible,” she said, whether the injury occurred in training or conflict. The days were long for Johnson, but she and the five others had fortitude. “As each day went by, and I survived this long, I can survive one more day,” she told herself. She also revealed a long conversation with God knowing she must have resilience to survive this ordeal. Until Marines rescued Johnson and six other POWs in Samarra — including Pvt. Jessica Lynch — she wondered how she could handle the captivity. On April 13, Johnson said their rescue was a scene out of a movie. “The Marines knocked down the door,” she recalled. “I knew I was on my way home.” Johnson and the other captives returned to a hero’s welcome three days later to a cheering crowd of about 3,000 people, but her experience as a POW was not over, both physically and mentally. “Eighteen years ago, not too many firefighting females had gone through this,” she said of the ambush and firefight that ensued before the soldiers were captured. At that time, Johnson said female soldiers didn’t have too many opportunities to share their stories. She said the spotlight focused on the male soldiers who bragged about their war experiences. For the female soldiers, she said they served with resilience and dignity. “I came home to encourage women to speak up,” Johnson explained. In 2003, Johnson said others think she had done well with her life, but the Army specialist pointed out she will never be the same. Johnson, though, detailed her experience as a POW in the 2010 book, “I'm Still Standing: From Captive U. S. Soldier to Free Citizen – My Journey Home.” The book received a nomination for the NAACP Images Award and was a bestseller. She said there’s no shame in seeking help. After her release and return home, Johnson said the Panamanian president invited the free POW, her parents and grandmother to a state dinner. Johnson called the invitation and dinner as one of the proudest months she had. Her days, though, since that November 2003 dinner only became harder to face, and she takes one day at a time. “There are days I don’t want to get out of bed. Tomorrow is another day,” she told the conference attendees. “Something new may be happening.” Johnson said she can’t allow the days to hold her down. She said a day could be a down day, while another day, she would wear a veterans’ T-shirt. She said women continue to face a stigma with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when they seek treatment. After her release, Johnson received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the POW medal for her service in Iraq. By the end of the year, the Army gave her a temporary disability honorable discharge. Johnson, who lives in El Paso, Texas, with her daughter and other family members, continued her education and received a culinary arts degree in 2011.