MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
It's Memorial Day, a time when we recognize the sacrifice of America's servicemen and women. This year many of us are thinking about the more than 3,000 Americans who have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later in the program, we will hear remembrances from family and friends of the fallen who are buried Arlington National Cemetery.
But first, it may be hard to remember now, but the early days of the Iraq war were marked by great optimism here in the U.S. In fact, one of the few dark stories at the beginning of the war was the ambush of an American convoy near the southern city of Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.
Eleven U.S. troops were killed in that attack; six others were captured. The most famous was Private Jessica Lynch, who was held separately from her comrades. Shoshana Johnson was also wounded and taken captive during that ambush. She became America's first African-American female prisoner of war. She and her fellow captives were rescued by U.S. Marines 22 days later. We're honored to have the opportunity to speak with her today.
Shoshana Johnson, thank you for joining us.
Ms. SHOSHANA JOHNSON (U.S. Army, Retired): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Shoshana, could you take us back first? Why did you join the Army?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I joined the Army for the educational benefits. And it's also, basically, the family business. My dad did 20 years. My sister did 11 years. Aunts, uncles, cousins have served in the military from the time we immigrated from Panama to the U.S.
MARTIN: So it seemed like the thing to do?
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah, basically. You know, I went to college on my own right after high school, had a little too much fun and dropped out. And then when I realized what I really wanted to do with my life, I needed the funds to go to school, and I thought the military was the best way to do that.
MARTIN: Do you remember when you first heard you are going to Iraq, do you remember what your thoughts were about the mission?
Ms. JOHNSON: You know, long before we got orders, there was always the rumor. And when I heard the rumor, I'm like I'm not going. But when it came down to it, I knew I would do my job to the best of my ability.
MARTIN: Do you remember the day of the ambush? Do you still think about it?
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. There are times when it becomes very prominent in my mind, definitely the anniversary or where I hear on the news something similar happening to my fellow soldiers out there still in Iraq.
MARTIN: What do you remember most?
Ms. JOHNSON: Unfortunately, the feeling of helplessness. I couldn't help my fellow soldiers. After being trained in the military that's basically your job. You're there to help the American people, to protect them. And yet, when it came down to it, I couldn't help my fellow soldiers.
MARTIN: You were wounded yourself.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. I was shot. I injured both legs: a broken ankle and a torn Achilles tendon.
MARTIN: Were you able to stay with the other prisoners?
Ms. JOHNSON: No. They kept us separated in individual cells up until, I would say, about the last week of my captivity.
MARTIN: Can you describe what that was like?
Ms. JOHNSON: In the beginning, that first day of captivity was very harsh. I was told that if I did not cooperate, I would be killed. Plain and simple. There was a lot of things that happened that first day, but luckily I was treated pretty well during the rest of my captivity.
MARTIN: What were the people like who were holding you? I guess, I don't know -were they soldiers? Were they Iraqi soldiers?
Ms. JOHNSON: You know, it was hard to tell. They wore civilian clothes. Once in a while I would see someone in uniform, but it was very rare. But I will always remember one gentleman in particular, and he went out of his way to be kind to me. He spoke of his two wives and 11 children. And I wonder if he and his family are doing well after he showed me so much kindness.
MARTIN: Why do you think he was kind to you?
Ms. JOHNSON: I wonder if I reminded him maybe of one of his children. And he probably hoped if his daughter was in the same situation, someone would do the same for her.
MARTIN: You were rescued after 22 days, you and all the other American POWs, and you were honorably discharged in December of 2003 after five years of service. And people have all different kinds of experiences when they, you know, come home from service. What was it like for you?
Ms. JOHNSON: It was hard, you know, adjusting to civilian life, and then on top of that being kind of prominent in the American public, in American's eyes. It was hard to walk down the street when people know so much about you and you know nothing of them.
MARTIN: Were people appreciative? Were they - what was they like?
Ms. JOHNSON: They were very kind. Everyone was very kind. I got a lot of letters and support and everything. I never received one piece of hate mail.
MARTIN: Why did you think you would get hate mail? What kind of hate mail would you get?
Ms. JOHNSON: Unfortunately, Lynch gets hate mail. So…
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I think people say she doesn't deserve the accolades that she gets and things like that. That's kind of stuff she gets. So I always wondered if people who were against the war would send anything my way. And it didn't turn out that way at all. All I got was love and support.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Iraq war veteran Shoshana Johnson. You mentioned Jessica Lynch. She was also part of your convoy and she did become, I don't know what other word to use other than a celebrity in the days after her rescue. Did the attention she received affect the reception you got?
Ms. JOHNSON: I don't think so. I mean, we came home and there were, you know, thousands of people waiting for us when we landed in El Paso. I don't think her status affected our warm reception at all.
MARTIN: It is interesting that she is the person that most people remember from that whole experience. I'm just wondering why you think that is.
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, because she was propped up a lot in the media. Unfortunately, there's also a backlash to that. Recently, we went to the memorial for a comrade who died in the ambush, Lori Ann Piestewa, and I was sitting right next to her doing the memorial and some of the media actually cut me out of the picture.
Ms. JOHNSON: Pictures that were put in the newspaper and some of the news broadcasts. They literally cut me out of the picture. Of course, she gets a lot of backlash for stuff like that, but she didn't do it.
MARTIN: How does that make you feel?
Ms. JOHNSON: It hurts, you know. I made a contribution to my government and to my country, and it's hard when your contribution is ignored. You know, when they act like you don't exist. And I definitely know if I feel like that, I can't imagine how my male counterparts feel, because they are completely ignored.
MARTIN: When I introduced you I said, you know, she's the first African-American female prisoner of war. Does it hurt when I say that and when other people say that? How does that feel to hear those words associated with your name, yourself?
Ms. JOHNSON: I know, I make a joke out of it because, you know, over 200-odd years of American history, black women have managed not to be caught in a conflict even though we participated and contributed. And I'm the first one to get caught. I don't think that's anything to stand up and cheer about.
MARTIN: Do you feel guilty?
Ms. JOHNSON: You know, I think it's a mark against the black women in this country.
MARTIN: I could argue with you. Wait, wait, wait. Excuse me. I mean, here you are, you're serving your country in uniform, you're been serving overseas. You're doing a job that many women didn't - you know, weren't able to do. I mean, come on. That's interesting. I wonder if that's part of your survivor's guilt?
Ms. JOHNSON: According to the doctor, yes. But I, you know, I just feel that women have been contributing from, you know, the Revolutionary War, black women especially, and I'm the first one to get caught.
MARTIN: Do you keep in touch with your fellow POWs?
Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. There is actually a Mitchell(ph) POW Center in Pensacola, Florida. Every POW from World War II up until this conflict is invited yearly for physicals and things like that, and we all make a plan to go down together.
MARTIN: Does that help to get together?
Ms. JOHNSON: It does. I look forward to it every year. You know, they are my brothers. They are the ones that can really understand what it's like and what I'm going through.
MARTIN: I've wanted to ask if you follow events in Iraq now. I mean, do you read the papers? Do you keep up with events and how the war is proceeding?
Ms. JOHNSON: I try not to get too much into it, because I have certain triggers that cause flashbacks and things like that. But I have friends who are in Iraq right now. Unfortunately, I might end up going back to Baghdad to testify in a court marshal of a friend.
MARTIN: Why? I mean, to the degree that you can say, why?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, you know, they're accusing him of something that I know - I know his character - he wouldn't do. This is a young man that took part in -actually in March - helped in taking down a top al-Qaida operative, rescued two Iraqi nationals who were captured and were being tortured. You know, this is his second tour in Iraq. He's spent 10 years in the military. I know him, and what they are accusing him of is bogus.
MARTIN: What are they are accusing him off?
Ms. JOHNSON: They're saying he mistreated the al-Qaida operative that he took down.
MARTIN: So you would want to go and to testify?
Ms. JOHNSON: I would definitely go to Baghdad to defend him and stand by his side. When I came home, he and I had a conversation and one of the things we talked about was how I was captured and my treatment. And I remember telling him, I said, never do to anybody what was done to me, because it makes you no better than the enemy we fight.
MARTIN: It's interesting, because there's this big discussion going on right now about whether torture is ever appropriate or no.
Ms. JOHNSON: I don't believe torture is ever appropriate, but when you're taking down a top al-Qaida representative, he's not going to go down easily and you're going to have to fight him. I don't see a problem in that. Now, torturing a detainee to get information I don't believe in one bit because that easily could have been me.
MARTIN: I'm just curious about whether if you knew - you mentioned at the beginning that serving in the military is like the family tradition.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.
MARTIN: And I wonder if you knew then what you know now if you still would have served.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. I don't regret my military time at all. Of course, you know, try to avoid being caught and all that kind of stuff or…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JOHNSON: …I think I would have done a couple of things differently, but my time in the Army, period, I don't regret.
MARTIN: You have a daughter.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, I do. She just turned seven.
MARTIN: Congratulations. Would you want her to serve?
Ms. JOHNSON: If she sat down and said she wanted to, I would definitely sit down and explain to her what the military is all about. And if she still wants to, you know, sign up after that, I will support her 110 percent. It's her life, not mine. And as long as she's doing an honorable job and a contributing member of society, I will stand by her proudly.
MARTIN: So, Shoshana, as a veteran, how do you plan to spend Memorial Day?
Ms. JOHNSON: I'm going to take my daughter to see "Shrek."
MARTIN: Okay. That sounds like a plan. Shoshana Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. JOHNSON: No problem. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And thank you for your service.
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, thank you.
MARTIN: Shoshana Johnson is a decorated veteran of the Iraq war. She earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War Medal for her service in Iraq. She joined us from member station KTEP in El Paso, Texas. Thank you so much again for joining.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Coming up, we look back to a time when neighborhood swimming pools were not for everyone.
Mr. JEFF WILTSE (Author, "Contested Waters"): They very conspicuously did not provide pools in the primary black neighborhood. As a result of that pattern of discrimination, swimming did not really become a significant part of our black culture.
MARTIN: We hear about the troubled history of public pools from the author of "Contested Waters."