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Video: POW recounts Iraq and ‘journey home’

  1. Closed captioning of: POW recounts Iraq and ‘journey home’

    >>> we're back at 8:17. in march of 2003 , during the early days of " operation iraqi freedom ," the nation was shaken by the deadly ambush of a u.s. army convoy on its way to baghdad. 11 american soldiers died, 7 were taken captive, including shoshanna johnson , a young mother who became the first black female prisoner of war in u.s. history . we'll talk to her in a moment, but first, her story. when shoshanna johnson joined the army, war was the last thing on her mind. a family tradition of military service and the goal of a college education compelled her to enlist and become an army cook. but in 2003 , shoshanna had to leave behind her daughter janelle when her combat service support unit was deployed to iraq. within days of entering iraq, her unit was brutally attacked by a well-armed mob of civilians. her attackers took several prisoners, including shoshanna's friend, jessica lynch , who would become the name and face associated with the tragedy, but it was shoshanna who appeared on iraqi television, being interrogated by her captors.

    >> what's your name?

    >> shoshanna.

    >> shanna? where are you coming from?

    >> after 22 days in captivity, shoshanna was rescued along with other p.o.w.s. shoshanna returned home to a hero's welcome and she received numerous awards for her valor. shoshanna johnson has now written a book about her experience.

    m still standing: from captive u.s. soldier to free citizen, my journey home." good to have you here, good morning.

    >> thank you. good morning.

    >> how are you doing physically? you were shot in both ankles.

    >> yes.

    >> it took a long time to get back on your feet. how are you doing now?

    >> i'm doing okay, as best as can be expected. i'll never be the same, but you know, the legs are still here, so i'm very blessed.

    >> and you said to me a second ago, "i'm in heels," which is a major accomplishment.

    >> yes.

    >> emotionally, you went through bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, bouts of depression. how long did it take to get your feet back on the ground emotionally?

    >> i'm still working on it. i still see a therapist on a regular basis. i still take antidepressants. it's going to be a long, long battle, and according to my therapist, it will get easier once all the conflict is done.

    >> you waited to write and release this book, and it's my understanding you just thought there were a lot of misconceptions out there.

    >> definitely.

    >> and you wanted to fill people in. what's the biggest thing you wanted to clear up?

    >> one thing is that i was running away, i led the convoy, that there was animosity between myself and jessica. there's a lot of different things that, you know, you begin to hear over time and time, and i just wanted people to hear my side of the story.

    >> when you look back at what happened, a lot of things went wrong during this attack. your group of vehicles became separated from a larger convoy of over 600. navigators that were supposed to be stationed along your route were not there. many of your weapons jammed during the ambush. your communications tool didn't work properly. do you look back in anger at that course of events or with anger?

    >> no. i try not to hold any anger. hindsight is 20/20. looking back, it's really easy to see every single thing that went wrong and could have been corrected. but in the moment, it's not that easy. i think there were a lot of mistakes made, but --

    >> hopefully learned --

    >> yes.

    >> people learned from those mistakes?

    >> i know they have learned from those mistakes. basic training 's a lot different. there's a lot of different training going on. so, what happened to us was not in vain.

    >> a couple things i want to touch on quickly. you think you were treated, actually, pretty well by the people who took you captive, in terms of medically.

    >> yes.

    >> they operated on you --

    >> yes.

    >> and they tried to make sure that they did the right thing by you.

    >> yes, very much so.

    >> and the other thing, there was a moment where they told you, that your captors told you they had seen your mother. it turned out to be your grandmother --

    >> on television.

    >> yes.

    >> and i know that was a moment when it really hit home for you.

    >> yes. hi, grandma, by the way. she's watching in brooklyn. you know, i tried to keep strong. the last thing i wanted to do was be the hysterical female. and i was holding on pretty well, but once they told me they had seen my mother, i automatically thought of my daughter also.

    >> yeah, who was how old, again, at the time?

    >> 2. she was 2 years old. so, that really hit home, and you know, i lost it. and actually, when i did lose it, they actually felt kind of guilty. i saw them back out of my room, drop their heads and things like that.

    >> as we mentioned, someone else got a lot of the attention after this, but you were the face we all saw first. and so, i'm thrilled that you're doing so well.

    >> i am. i'm very blessed.

    >> thank you very much. we

TODAY contributor
updated 2/2/2010 10:30:26 AM ET 2010-02-02T15:30:26

The physical healing is done, but nearly seven years after becoming the U.S. armed forces’ first black female prisoner of war when she was captured by Iraqi insurgents, Shoshana Johnson is still dealing with the mental trauma of her ordeal.

In March 2003, just days after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Johnson’s unit got separated from its convoy and was ambushed in the city of Nasiriyah. Eleven members of the unit were killed, and seven, including Johnson and Jessica Lynch, were captured.

Lynch, who was held separately, became a national hero when she was rescued after nine days of captivity. Johnson and four other captives were rescued after 22 days, also to be welcomed as heroes.

Physical and mental wounds
Johnson was badly wounded in both ankles during the assault, and, she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York, the effects will be with her forever.

“I’ll never be the same, but the legs are still here, so I’m very blessed,” she said.

Also still with her are the mental wounds she suffered, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

“I’m still working on it. I still see a therapist on a regular basis. I still take antidepressants. It’s going to be a long, long battle,” Johnson said.

Now discharged from the Army, Johnson is back in the news because of the publication of her book about her experiences. “I'm Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen - My Journey Home” was published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.

Johnson told Lauer she wrote the book to clear up a number of misconceptions people have about what happened to her.

“One thing is that I was running away,” she said. Another was “that there was animosity between myself and Jessica.”

Litany of errors
When Jessica Lynch, who was badly injured in the attack, was rescued nearly two weeks before everyone else, the Army sold her as a John Wayne-type hero who had gone down with her guns blazing. The story captured the country’s imagination, and the fascination continued when it was revealed that the Army’s original story was a total fabrication. Lynch, like Johnson, did not have a working weapon and surrendered without firing a shot.

Johnson had to fight to get the same disability pay as Lynch. It also took two years before the Army recognized her PTSD, she writes. But, she says, she remains friends with Lynch and understands why she got more attention than the other captives.

Shoshana Johnson was rescued from Iraqi insurgents after 22 days of captivity.
The attack on Johnson’s and Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company came as the result of a litany of mistakes and errors. The unit was the last group in a convoy of 600 vehicles moving to Baghdad and got bogged down in sand. As the convoy moved on without them, they got lost. Navigators were not positioned where they were supposed to be. Communication devices weren’t working.

After hours of wandering through the desert trying to find the convoy, the unit of vehicles went through Nasiriyah for the second time. That’s when a mob of armed men, none of them in military uniform, attacked. When the soldiers tried to fight back, most of their rifles jammed.

Learning from mistakes
Lauer asked if she holds any anger toward the Army for all the mistakes.

Video: Jessica Lynch looks back “No,” Johnson replied. “I try not to hold any anger. Hindsight’s 20/20. Looking back, it’s real easy to see every single thing that went wrong that could have been corrected, but in the moment, it’s not that easy. I think there were a lot of mistakes made. I know they have learned from those mistakes, so what happened to us was not in vain.”

Still, there was plenty to trouble Johnson once she returned to her Texas home. The Army’s initial refusal to treat her PTSD was hard to take, as was what she called “the resentment and pettiness” of other soldiers toward her because of the attention she received.

With a young daughter at home, Johnson, who had been in the Army since 1998, requested a medical discharge in August 2003. When she was discharged, among her decorations were a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War Medal.

Even insurgents were moved
She writes that during her captivity, she never knew if she would be released or killed. But she said that her captors treated her well, and the Iraqis even performed surgery on her wounded ankles.

“I tried to keep strong. The last thing I wanted to do was be the hysterical female,” Johnson told Lauer.

Shoshana Johnson said she is still recovering from the physical and mental effects of her captivity, but holds no anger.

She managed to do that, too — until her captors told her that they had seen her mother on television worrying about her. The woman the Iraqis had seen was actually Johnson’s grandmother, but Johnson’s daughter back home was just 2, and the mention of family hit her hard and she broke down. Film of her emotional response was broadcast on Iraqi television and then in the United States.

“Once they told me they had seen my mother, I automatically thought of my daughter. That really hit home and I lost it,” Johnson told Lauer.

The scene was so emotional, even the Iraqis holding her were moved.

“They felt kind of guilty,” Johnson told Lauer. “I saw them back out of the room.”

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