America's first black female POW talks about experiences in Iraq
The title of her lecture was “Heroism Has No Color,” but Shoshana Johnson doesn’t consider herself a hero. “My black butt got caught,” said the former specialist in the Army and America’s first black female prisoner of war. “That’s all that happened. … As far as being a hero, I don’t see it.”
Shoshana Johnson spoke at Butler University on March 30.
Johnson was the closing speaker in Butler University’s Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series. She spoke on March 30 at Clowes Memorial Hall. She also met to take questions from the local press before her talk. When she arrived in Kuwait, the second-generation soldier saw fully loaded HMVs. “That’s when it hits you,” Johnson said. “You’re in a war zone.” She said she sat on her cot and wept after she was issued ammunition, but she relied on God for strength. That strength was tested by combat on March 23, 2003. Johnson’s convoy was ambushed in the city of an-Nasiriyah. She was injured in both legs after receiving a bullet wound to the ankle. When the chaos was over, nine soldiers were dead and six were captured. “It was a horrible feeling to realize so many are gone and you survived and you don’t know why,” Johnson said. The soldiers were held for 22 days. “It was scary, there’s no way around that,” she said. “I thought I was going to die. I said those prayers you say when you think you’re going to the Lord, the Lord’s Prayer … My belief in God gave me strength. … It was still a hard 22 days.” She also credited her buddies with helping her survive. “I don’t think I could’ve made it if they hadn’t been there.” When they were allowed to be together, they asked if she had been raped, and wept when she told them she had not. Johnson said she was treated better than the male captives. Sometimes she was not bound, and she always ate first. Her captors took her to a hospital for surgery to clean the wounds on her ankles, saving her from losing her leg and possibly her life to gangrene. They put a bed in her cell while she recuperated. “They are not ‘those people,’” she said. She added that every race had bad people, and encouraged the audience to judge people individually instead of as a group. Johnson and six other POWs were rescued on April 13, 2003, when the Marines conducted house raids. “Hearing the Marines kicking down the door in clear English, I can’t even put into words,” she said. Johnson said that American soldiers are there to protect Americans, regardless of race, religion or sex. “When you put on a uniform, you do it for your whole country,” she said. “I went out to protect not just African-Americans and women. I went out to protect everyone.” She told the audience of her nine comrades who died that day, and said, “Do not disgrace their memory by judging people by the color of their skin.” She encouraged the audience to vote. “If you don’t agree with something, we have a unique opportunity come November,” she said. “If you don’t like it, change it.” She also said, “A soldier is here for you no matter who’s in the White House.” The Army awarded Johnson, who walks with a slight limp, a 30 percent disability. She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by gunfire. The Army did not originally factor this into her disability claim. “I don’t deserve as much disability as [Jessica Lynch],” she said. “What I dispute is I think I deserve more than 30 percent. … The psychological effects of being a POW begin the day you’re captured.” She said the issue has been resolved, and that Lynch deserves more than the 80 percent she was awarded. To her knowledge, her rescuers have not been rewarded. The Marines recently awarded the colonel who authorized the rescue mission a Bronze Star. “Why did it take a year?” she asked. “Why only a Bronze Star? Why not a Silver Star?” Johnson said she did not regret joining the military. “I regret getting caught,” she said.