With dreams of being a chef and looking for a way to pay for culinary school, Shoshana Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1998. Then, while serving as a cook in a support unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Johnson’s life changed completely.
It was March 23, 2003, and Johnson was in a convoy traveling through the city of Nasiriyah. The convoy, however, made a wrong turn and came under enemy attack. No one in Johnson’s unit, including Private First Class Jessica Lynch, was a combat soldier, yet they found themselves in a deadly firefight.
“We lost 11 in the ambush,” Johnson tells “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”. “Eight of us were taken as prisoners of war; two died in captivity. Jessica was kept in Nasiriyah and five of us were taken to Baghdad.”
While in captivity with her fellow prisoners of war, Johnson ― the first African-American female POW in U.S. history ― says her mind kept racing. She thought of her 2-year-old daughter, her terrified family and whether or not she would survive long enough to see any of them.
“There were lots of times when I thought in captivity, ‘This is it. I’m going to die,’” Johnson says. “I also thought, ‘Well, I made it through the ambush. Why did God take me through the ambush to let me die now? I just got to hold on.’”
After 22 frightening days of facing the unknown, Johnson’s ordeal finally ended. “It was like a miracle,” she recalls. “Basically, the heavens opens up and these giant Marines came in to the rescue.”
Upon returning home, Johnson prepared for the long road to recovery, which included rehab due to the gunshot wounds on both her legs as well as psychiatric care for the mental and emotional trauma she endured.
“It wasn’t easy ― the Army actually gave me quite a difficult time about acknowledging my PTSD,” Johnson reveals. “I had to fight them in order for them to acknowledge that I was suffering from the condition and it was a direct result of my time in Iraq. I do have post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s something I deal with on a daily basis.”
Johnson says her PTSD also impacts her daughter, who is now 16.
“It’s me and her, every single day. She has to deal with the effects of living with someone with PTSD also,” Johnson points out. “So, I also make sure she gets regular counseling.”
In the years following her rescue, Johnson enrolled in culinary school to continue her dream of becoming a chef. She has also written a book about her experience as a prisoner of war and continues to use her story to raise awareness about the mental health needs of soldiers and their families.
“Volunteering in the veteran community is important because it gives me a sense of purpose. I’m here to help other veterans get through the struggle,” Johnson says.
Ultimately, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient is grateful for her life today.
“I know for sure that I am blessed. I get to see my daughter grow up and I’m pursuing culinary [work], which I absolutely love,” Johnson says. “And I know for sure that the bond that I have formed with my fellow prisoners of war will be with me until I am laid to rest.”
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