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April 23, 2014

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First Black Female Prisoner of War Tells Harrowing Tale

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Much like the powerful images of Tuskegee airmen in full regalia sidled next to their planes during World War II, the image of Shoshana Johnson being escorted to safety after her captivity in Iraq is indelibly imprinted in the minds of television viewers across the world.

It was especially poignant for African Americans, who saw it as a fleeting moment of vindication for a time when blacks in the military were not acknowledged for their service.



Now, years later, Johnson, a former U.S. Army cook has helped change history again for blacks in the military. She was thrust into the spotlight when, in the early days of the Iraq War, she was shot in both ankles as her convoy of mechanics, cooks and disabled vehicles wandered into the city of Nasiriyah, Johnson writes in her newly released memoir, 'I'm Still Standing: From Captive U. S. Soldier to Free Citizen--My Journey Home.'

The wandering convoy touched off a bloody battle that left 11 U.S. soldiers dead and six abducted and held as prisoners of war, including Johnson and her friend, Jessica Lynch, she writes in the gripping memoir released just in time for Black History Month.

"I was shaking,'' she writes. "I was saying the Lord's Prayer to myself...when someone grabbed my legs and pulled me from my shelter. And like that, I became a prisoner of war.''

She became the first female prisoner of war in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first black female prisoner of war in U.S. history. But the Pentagon peddled Lynch's story, saying she went down fighting. Lynch later wrote a book correcting the story, saying she never fired a shot before being critically injured.

While Johnson's ordeal received less media attention, she was treated like a star on her home base at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was given light duties to allow her wounds to heal and was assigned by ranking officers and supervisors to represent the Army at high-profile events, which drew grumblings and rancor from some of her fellow soldiers.

"Being a POW was horrible, but some of the comments I received from fellow soldiers felt just as bad,'' she said in an interview with BV on Books. "I had a lot of support from the African American community, but it's like someone once said, 'Not every black person is your friend, and not every white person is your enemy. A black male was upset because I went to an Oscar De La Hoya fight. He was like, 'I was in the same Army and I didn't get to go.' I was like, 'did you get shot? We had totally different experiences. That hurt my heart. There was another white officer who accused me of housing fraud and said I wasn't living with my child.''

Johnson was rescued in April 2003, but by late August, she was severely depressed, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and at risk of endangering her relationship with her daughter. She requested a medical discharge.

"I wrote my story to set the record straight,'' she said in the interview. "There is so much out there that happened to me from people who were not there. I just wanted to tell my story and let it be known. I'm not naïve. There are people who will still say that is not what happened, but I know in my heart what is true.''

She is critical of the nation's military efforts in Iraq. "I never understood the politics of what's going into Iraq. I want my fellow soldiers to come home. It's not something I can watch on the news. It's very tender.''

Johnson said she still suffers from the aftereffects of combat. "It's going to be a long, hard road to get better,'' she said. "I take medication. It won't ease up as long as these conflicts are going on in the Middle East. I just have to get over the guilt of living when good people died. It's hard, but each day gets easier.''

'I'm Still Standing' is a riveting piece of black history that should be read for generations. It also is a compelling story of a woman's courage to survive against all odds.

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