Nowadays, Shoshana Johnson is at peace.
Her days are filled with cooking and baking in the kitchen of her Northeast home, reading sultry romance novels by her favorite authors, practicing yoga and holistic healing, and volunteering at her church and with veterans organizations as she works to maintain her “new normal.”
“I live a good life,” she said from Christ the Savior Catholic Church, where she is a lector. “I’m retired. I’m just enjoying being here. I’m comfortable enough. I think being able to give of myself and my time is better than trying to go out and work for a dollar.”
An unassuming daughter from a military family, Johnson has come a long way after gaining unwanted fame 20 years ago as the first U.S. black female prisoner of war. She was among the members of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss who were killed, wounded and captured after a nearly 90-minute firefight in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003.
Anxiety still interrupts her inner peace, however, especially during springtime, the anniversary of the ambush.
“(This) time period is kind of a trigger for me,” said Johnson, who medically retired in 2003.
The former Army specialist schedules more therapy sessions and takes prescribed antidepressants to cope with her memories of the ambush and the aftermath, where nine of her 507th comrades died, and she and five others from her company were injured. In all, eight members of the 507th were captured.
The POWs, including Johnson, were held for 22 days before members of the Marines’ Delta Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, rescued them in Samarra, Iraq.
The onetime Army cook, who just turned 50, said her life today is much different from what she thought it was going to be like growing up.
Johnson, a native of Panama, was 5 years old when she emigrated to the United States with her parents, Claude and Eunice Johnson. Her father joined the Army, which meant the family changed addresses every few years to accommodate his career.
The Johnsons eventually settled in El Paso and grew by two more daughters. Shoshana Johnson graduated in 1991 from El Paso’s Andress High School, where she participated in Junior ROTC.
She enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso, but lacked focus and dropped out. After working a few part-time jobs, she decided to pursue her passion for baking and joined the Army as a cook to pay for culinary school.
While at her first duty station in Colorado, she gave birth to her daughter, Janelle. When it came time to re-enlist, she told her Army career counselor that she would do so if she were stationed at Fort Bliss, the military post in El Paso, so her daughter could be near her grandparents and other family and friends. The Army obliged, and Johnson was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company.
The 507th deployed to Kuwait on Feb. 20, 2003, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a support unit for a Patriot air defense missile battalion within the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade. Its 82 members included clerks, cooks, drivers, medics, mechanics and technicians.
Within a month, on March 20, 2003, U.S. forces entered southern Iraq and moved quickly into the country, according to an Army after-action report, “Attack on the 507th Maintenance Company 23 March 2003 An Nasiriyah, Iraq,” Elements of the 507th brought up the rear of a 600-vehicle convoy.
By the third day, there were problems.
Some of the company’s vehicles had fallen behind and were off course due to confusion and miscommunication. Also, several of the five-ton vehicles had mechanical problems or got bogged down in soft sand. At this point, the soldiers were sleep deprived, had limited contact with convoy leaders due to dying radio batteries, and were running low on fuel.
Because of human error, 18 of the company’s vehicles (including two that were being towed) mistakenly drove into Nasiriyah, an unsecured city about 225 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The attack and captivity
As the convoy tried to get back on course, Iraqi combatants began to shoot at the vehicles from all sides. The U.S. soldiers returned fire, but at some point their rifles and machine guns malfunctioned, possibly because of inadequate maintenance in a desert environment.
Because of their efforts to get out of Nasiriyah, the spaces between the vehicles created three separate groups. Johnson was part of the last group made up of 16 soldiers, including two from the 3rd Forward Support Battalion from Fort Stewart, Georgia, who were traveling in four heavy vehicles and a Humvee.
Of those 16, nine died during the attack. Pfc. Lori Ann Piestawa was injured in the attack and died in captivity. Six of the eight soldiers captured during the assault were injured. Sgt. Donald Walters, whose vehicle was disabled earlier in the conflict with a different group, was wounded during the firefight, captured and executed by his captors, according to the Army report.
The POWs, who shared stories of various levels of mistreatment, were rescued by a Marine contingent on April 13, 2003.
The report stated that after the five-ton tractor trailer where Johnson was a passenger was stopped, Sgt. James Riley told Johnson and the vehicle’s driver, Spc. Edgar Hernandez, to get out of the vehicle and take cover underneath it. Johnson said that when she was halfway under the vehicle, she felt a bullet tear through her left ankle and then, she believes, proceed to her right ankle.
“It all happened so fast,” she said.
She said Riley pulled her the rest of the way under the truck, before trying to return fire, but all of their M-16s malfunctioned. With no way to counter-attack and with Hernandez shot in the arm, Riley decided their best course was to surrender.
Johnson wrote a book about her life and Army experience, “I’m Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen – My Journey Home,” with M.L. Doyle, which Simon & Schuster published in 2010.
In her book, Johnson wrote that her captors moved her and the other POWs every few days. She relied on her Catholic faith while in captivity. She said that she got lots of little signals from God that she would be OK. For example, she survived the ambush with bullets whizzing by her head and rocket-propelled grenades being launched in her direction.
“We made it through so many tight squeezes, a lot of close calls,” she said during her interview. “You say thank you, Lord.”
She also took comfort in a vivid dream she had while imprisoned. It was of her and her mother and sisters eating and shopping in El Paso. She took that as a sign that she would be going home.
As scared as she was during the entire ordeal, she also was in constant pain from her injuries. She said Iraqi doctors operated on her ankles, but she was concerned that the wounds would become infected because there was no follow-up care. Today, she feels blessed that she still has her feet.
When asked how she was able to walk during her rescue as depicted in the iconic photo of her following two Marines to a waiting chopper, she gave one word: “Determination.”
Recovery and relapses
She said her POW experience made her more aware of her blessings, including a loving and supportive family. She appreciated their candor to help her realize that she needed mental health therapy.
Johnson said no one can understand exactly what she went through because her captors separated her from her fellow soldiers at times, so her experience was hers alone. She said she is lucky to have family members with military backgrounds, but acknowledged that their empathy could only go so far.
“There are times when I feel very isolated (because) there’s no one that can really understand,” she said.
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, she said some of the former 507th POWs would try to schedule their annual medical checkups at the same time at the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola, Florida. The researchers at the center have studied the physical, mental and emotional effects of the trauma military members endure going back to the Vietnam War.
“It’s good to see that everybody is doing OK,” said Johnson, who planned to schedule an appointment at the Mitchell Center soon because she appreciated the thoroughness of the physicians and therapists who have diagnosed things over the years that have enhanced her quality of life.
Despite the help from the Mitchell Center, the VA and her family, the bad memories of Iraq sometimes would consume her.
Johnson said that she has been hospitalized three times for suicidal thoughts from April 2008 through September 2017. The last two happened around national POW/MIA Day that falls on the third Friday in September. She said the recollection of the ambush and her captivity were too much at those times.
“The one in 2008 was right after all the hoopla on March 23 … and I started going downhill,” Johnson said.
Today she sustains her positive new normal through a combination of exercise and mental and emotional maintenance, to include local and out-of-town speaking engagements.
The new normal
Johnson said her life these days includes VA appointments, volunteer work with her church and different veterans’ organizations, and spending time with immediate and extended family who mostly live within blocks of her Northeast home. They include her parents; her daughter, Janelle, a junior business marketing major at the University of Texas Permian Basin; her dog, Popeye, a 17-year-old Maltipoo; and her sisters, one a retired Army officer who teaches at El Paso Community College and runs a massage business, and the other a professor at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
Physically, she admits to good and bad days.
She has traumatic arthritis in her neck, back, ankles and elbows that doctors attribute to the beating she took as a POW, and regular Army wear-and-tear. She credits her mobility to a fitness regime that includes workouts at a small gym near Chapin High School, and a holistic health approach that includes yoga classes. She said that her workouts can be painful, but they get easier the more she does them.
Johnson said she continues to visit her VA therapists to maintain a positive mental and emotional attitude. She lauded the VA staffers who have treated her long enough to reach out when they sense something is off with her.
Her recovery took a giant step forward after she realized that she did not have to base her future on other peoples’ values and expectations. She is content with her schedule that includes speaking engagements – up to five during a busy month – that ramp up around Veterans Day in November and Black History Month in February.
She controls her calendar to limit her stress.
A reason to speak
She has become more selective about her speaking engagements and favors those where she can make a difference, such as presentations at academic institutions and to groups interested about veterans and their needs. While she appears comfortable speaking in front of crowds, she admits that these engagements still make her nervous, but they also are cathartic.
Sometimes she wonders why she survived the Iraqi ordeal while many in her company did not, and the best answer is so she can share her experiences and perspectives as a POW, a military veteran and a female soldier.
“It’s not easy talking about some of these things and sharing about myself,” she said. “But sometimes when you give people information you can see the light bulb go on over their heads because it’s something they’ve never thought of or heard before. Sometimes I think that is why I came home. Maybe my purpose is to enlighten and influence how they go on with their lives.”
She remembered a chance meeting with a woman after a speech she gave in Florida prior to the pandemic. The woman, possibly a high school student in 2003, watched on television as Johnson returned injured from Iraq, and that made the woman more aware of all the other wounded soldiers. As a result, the woman became a nurse.
“That made me feel good to think that the limelight was there, but it influenced somebody to help others,” Johnson said.
As a volunteer, she has served on various Veterans Affairs advisory committees at the national level, helped service organizations provide morning refreshments at the local VA, and assisted the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which supports Purple Heart Elementary School in the Socorro Independent School District. She also accommodates area schools that request her as a speaker.
And she cooks once per month at her American Legion Post 832, 2400 Bassett Ave., in Central El Paso.
“I give back when I can,” Johnson said.
Since Operation Iraqi Freedom, she has earned two associate degrees from El Paso Community College, including one in culinary arts in 2011. She mostly uses those skills at home, especially to make her special brownies for family, friends and church socials. She also will whip up fancier fare such as croquembouche (a pyramid of cream puffs topped with caramelized sugar) for special occasions.
She has taken a few nutrition courses at UTEP, but is not ready to commit to pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
When not baking or cooking, she fills her leisure time with romance novels by Twyla Turner and Christine Gray to get away from the crime, conflict and drama that the media usually covers, she said. She continues to work on a cookbook with her niece, Ella Johnson, a freshman at EPCC. The two continue to organize and refine the recipes and their backstories. Her more immediate plans include going on a religious pilgrimage to Greece, Turkey and Italy later this year.
Despite the difficulty of her ordeal and her recovery, Johnson said she is eternally grateful to El Pasoans who have helped her during the past 20 years. She thanked those who respected her family’s privacy when she was a POW. She shared her appreciation for law enforcement who sheltered her parents’ home and her daughter’s day care center from unwanted publicity.
“El Paso has been my support through these 20 years, and it’s very much appreciated,” she said.
Changes to Army training
What Johnson and the other members of the 507th experienced in Nasiriyah did not surprise some Army officers, according to an April 1, 2004, article in Government Executive magazine. If anything, they were surprised that such incidents did not happen more often during the conflict. There was agreement that the system needed to be upgraded … and fast.
Army officials blamed the 507th ambush on inadequate training, insufficient equipment, exhaustion and human error. The service immediately reordered priorities and revamped its training curriculum to include instilling a warrior’s spirit in all soldiers regardless of where their units are deployed on a battlefield.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld brought former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker out of retirement in summer 2003 to oversee an enhanced standard training guide for all soldiers.
The changes included equipping every soldier with the best body armor, weapons and communication equipment. After the Nasiriyah ambush, combat and support units with deployment orders to Iraq received more physical training to build muscle and endurance, and tactical training on how to use their weapons, land navigation, map reading, first-aid training and nuclear, biological and chemical training.
The Army has continued that more rigorous combat training for all units that could be sent into battle, said Maj. Gen. James Isenhower III, commander of Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division.
For example, Fort Bliss units offer combat training for Reserve and National Guard units preparing for possible deployment.
“And that’s been governed largely by a commitment to never let something like that happen again in terms of the ambush with that unit,” Isenhower said in a briefing with El Paso media on Tuesday.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown, who commanded the 31st ADA Brigade during Operation Iraqi Freedom, recalled the immediate changes that were made to soldier training and access to resources in part because of what happened to the 507th.
An El Paso native who served at Fort Bliss several times during a 35-year career, Brown said the Army’s training upgrades were based on hard learned lessons in tactics and doctrine during the Iraq war.
The retired officer completed her service in 2017 as director of global operations for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and lives in Locust Grove, Virginia. She said there is a lot more technology used on today’s battlefields, such as drones and robots, but there still is a need for soldiers who are well trained and well equipped.
“We always said, it takes boots on the ground to hold ground,” said Brown, who wears a metallic bracelet that honors those members of the 507th who were killed in action. “You can have whatever you want flying … but at the end of the day, if you’re going to hold ground, you do that on the ground.”
The Army’s Combat Studies Institute created a virtual “staff ride” of the 507th’s experience in Nasiriyah to allow others to study tactics and learn lessons and insights to plan, train and execute small unit maneuvers.
The Army redesignated the 507th twice before it disbanded the unit on July 16, 2005.