By Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers magazineFebruary 23, 2012
WASHINGTON (Feb. 23, 2012) -- Shoshana "Shana" Johnson will never forget March 23, 2003, not because it was the day she reluctantly became famous, but because it was the day she was cruelly thrust into the annals of history.
It was the day the specialist became the first African-American female prisoner of war. Ironically, Johnson wrote in her memoir "I'm Still Standing," that her family has always considered itself Panamanian-American, not African-American.
You may remember her: Her wide, frightened eyes dominated the international news media hours after Iraqi paramilitary forces loyal to Saddam Hussein ambushed her convoy, killing 11 Soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company, among them Johnson's good friend Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first woman to be killed in the war.
The Soldiers were considered missing in action at the time. Johnson and five other Soldiers including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was held separately so the others didn't know what happened to her, were captured.
"Her story is important because we all learned about Jessica Lynch," explained Johnson's ghostwriter Mary "M.L." Doyle. "We all learned about that ambush and the things that happened to Jessica. We knew a little about Shana, but her full story had never been told."
"She went through 23 days of hell, and I'm glad that there's a book that tells that story, because 20, 30, 50 years from now, people can read about it and know what she went through." Doyle, a former Army broadcaster and current Army civilian at Fort Meade, Md., is actually Johnson's third ghost writer, and was able to bring her story to life by drawing on her own experiences in Iraq and Kuwait.
Johnson, who had joined junior ROTC in high school, comes from a strong military background: Her father Claude is a retired drill sergeant and a veteran of the first Gulf War. Her Aunt Maggie served as an Air Force nurse. An uncle is a Vietnam veteran. Johnson's sister Nikki deployed to Afghanistan as an Army lieutenant shortly before she left for Iraq, and countless cousins have served in various branches of the armed services.
So when Johnson found herself at a crossroads in her 20s, working a series of dead-end jobs with no idea what she wanted to do with her life, it didn't take her long to realize that the Army offered more opportunities than anything else. She loved to cook and bake and thought she might want to go to culinary school someday, so she signed on as a cook.
Besides, she reasoned, if war ever did break out, as a cook she would be far behind the front lines. She was a single mother, and for her daughter's sake, didn't want to put herself at risk.
Even after the events of 9-11, she continued to believe she would never see combat. She held firm in that belief when the 507th received deployment orders for Iraq, and by the time she arrived in Kuwait she had convinced herself that all the combat support troops would be left behind at Camp Virginia.
But after a month or so in Kuwait, orders came for the company to join a convoy and head to Iraq. Johnson was "prepared to do what was necessary but scared to death as well." She "kept thinking that at some point, someone would figure out I wasn't needed in the heart of Iraq, but that never happened." Johnson wasn't just a cook anymore. She was a Soldier.
"When we had first started out from Camp Virginia, the long line of trucks had been a comfort," she recalled in her memoir. "A 600-vehicle convoy is a grand sight. I hadn't ever seen anything like it. None of us had. That endless line of headlights, the massive vehicles, the surge of people and equipment moving into Iraq made me feel a part of something formidable and there was comfort in that. There was, after all, safety in those numbers. Now we were much reduced."
As a maintenance company, the 507th was in the rear of the convoy, responsible for using its heavy equipment to drag other vehicles back on the road after they became stuck in the shifting desert sands, something that happened frequently. In fact, the 507th had to help with so many vehicles that it quickly lost sight of the main convoy, gradually falling farther and farther behind, until 33 Soldiers and 18 vehicles were 12 full hours behind.
Even the traffic control points forgot them, packing up and leaving long before the 507th arrived. Left to fend for themselves with broken radios and a badly marked map, the 507th Soldiers were soon hopelessly lost in the desert, "so lost that we had no idea just how lost we were."
They drove for almost three days straight, stopping here and there to eat Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, or catch quick catnaps, until the now-tiny convoy started taking fire in the city of Nasiriyah shortly after dawn on the 23rd. The winding, narrow city streets meant they had nowhere to go but forward, so the Soldiers drove as fast as they could, hoping to outrun the enemy.
They might have made it, but for a dump truck insurgents had used to block the road; Soldiers ahead of them had managed to avoid it. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded, hitting the vehicle carrying Piestewa and Lynch, sending it careening into the back of Johnson's five-ton.
The firefight was fierce. Contrary to many reports at the time, according to Doyle, there was indeed a firefight that lasted about 90 minutes, not 15. Johnson was able to get a shot off, just missing one of the insurgents, before her M-16 jammed. The Soldiers had been ordered to wrap duct tape around their magazines, but the tape melted in the heat, jamming all the weapons, Johnson explained.
Still, they fought back with everything they had. Pfc. Patrick Miller ran to the .50-caliber machine gun and showered the insurgents with bullets, killing eight and stopping them from setting up a mortar position. He would later receive a Silver Star, as would Sgt. Donald Walters, who is widely believed to have fought back until he ran out of ammunition, long after he was wounded multiple times. To this day, Johnson believes he was captured and executed, contrary to reports that indicated he died fighting.
"A constant barrage of bullets was pinging off our vehicles, nearby buildings, the ground all around us," Johnson described. "They were lobbing mortars, and the heavy explosions made the ground leap beneath me. It had to have been like shooting down into a pen of trapped animals. We didn't have anywhere to go, no escape and little defense. The shots were coming so close, you could hear the zipping noise they made as they whipped past us."
Johnson was injured as she dove for cover under the truck. A bullet passed through one leg and into the other, breaking a bone in her left leg and severing her right Achilles tendon, though she didn't know that at the time. She only knew that she was in agonizing pain, and that blood had turned her desert combat boots black. Her flesh, she recalled, looked like "ground meat."
With mounting casualties and few useable weapons and dwindling ammunition, the Soldiers of the 507th were "overwhelmed," as Doyle put it. They "were like Custer," Sgt. James Riley told reporters that April, and had no choice but to surrender. Riley went first, crawling out from under the truck with his hands raised. Spc. Edgar Hernandez, who was also wounded, followed. But Johnson didn't want to go. She didn't want to face whatever these brutal men might do to a woman. In the end, though, she didn't have a choice: Someone reached under the truck and dragged her out by her injured ankles.
"Agony washed up my legs and exploded through me. Putting up a fight dimmed to nothing after that. I was helpless," she wrote.
Then the real nightmare began.
(PART 2 of Johnson's story will be published on Army.mil March 1)