When Shoshana Johnson found out that she was about to be deployed to Iraq, she wasn’t especially worried. After all, her job in the Army was a cook. It wasn’t likely that she would see any action.
Johnson came from a military family and hoped that her Army job would pave the way for a future culinary career. She was sent to Iraq and on 23 March 2003, her convoy was attacked by a mob of well-armed civilians. Eleven were killed and five others were captured. Shoshana Johnson was among the captured.
What people may remember most from that incident is the dramatic hospital rescue of Jessica Lynch. Lynch quickly became the symbol for bravery in a new and uncertain war. In I’m still standing: From Captive U.S. Solider to Free Citizen—My Journey Home, Shoshana Johnson finally gets a chance to tell the story of her 22 days of captivity with help from M.L. Doyle.
The book begins with a graphic account of the ambush and Johnson getting shot in the ankles. She hides out under the truck but is eventually dragged out and beaten by the mob. “I had no idea how many of them there were. We had wandered into their town by mistake. We had killed some of them.They had killed some of us, and they were the victors.” The beating stops once they realize she is a woman and she is taken into captivity.
Here the book begins to alternate between past and present. We see how Johnson eventually landed in Iraq and became the first African American female prisoner of war. We see her captors treating her and her fellow soldiers decently, even operating on her injured legs. We learn about her Texas childhood and her journey as a single mom. We see her singing Amazing Grace to fight off fear and her desire not to be seen as weak in order to protect her fellow soldiers.
As with any book written with another person’s help, it can raise questions: How much of this story is in the person’s own words? Have things been altered or omitted to preserve the flow? We may never know, but Johnson’s voice remains consistent throughout and the picture that emerges is that of a woman who is unwilling to cast herself as a hero. “I wasn’t brave,” she insists after she returned home. “I had merely survived when others didn’t.”
Despite the subject matter, I’m Still Standing is an easy read. The chapters are lean and move at a good pace. The pace serves the story well in the beginning and middle when we are thrown into the action and getting to know Johnson. It doesn’t works so well once Johnson returns home and begins dealing with the aftershocks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in present time. Johnson has admitted that she is still in recovery and you wonder how much of that colored the final section. It’s almost as if she wants to rush the reader and herself through this last section without fully describing this particular trauma.
On 13 April 2003, the United States Marines raided the house where Johnson and her fellow soldiers were being held. Johnson returned to her family in the United States and endured another surgery to repair her legs. She did the talk show rounds, was given ringside seats to the Oscar De Lay Hoya fight in Vegas, and was invited to drop the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Once the festivities died down though, Johnson said she encountered resentment and criticism from fellow military over her near celebrity status and numerous public appearances.
Some even blamed the members of her convoy for getting captured in the first place. “They said we were stupid to have gotten lost and stupid to have wandered into the middle of a city and that we deserved to have been ambushed for our stupidity.”
She was also edgy and suffering from nightmares. Minor incidents would send her into tears. Johnson seemed to be in denial that she could be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was only after her young daughter asked why she was weeping all the time that she was able to admit that she needed psychiatric help.
A true solider, Johnson occasionally comes off as a stoic who is unwilling to seriously criticize the institution that abandoned its convoy with no radio contact and malfunctioning weapons in the middle of the desert. We see sparks of anger when she writes how the Army refused to consider the role PTSD played in her medical retirement and when they told her that mental condition was unrateable.
In contrast, the Army automatically assumed PTSD for Lynch and what she might have suffered during her ordeal (Lynch was rescued from the hospital on 01 April). “Jessica will tell you herself that she doesn’t have nightmares, she isn’t depressed, she’s not suffering from the same kind of mental issues that I have. While my board said my issues were unratable, her rating board said hers were automatic.” It took two years before Johnson was able to finally get the military to recognize her PTSD, but not without the help of the Revered Jesse Jackson.
The book ends on a poignant note, as Johnson continues to recover and plans for a future that includes her long awaited culinary classes. “I want to make specialty cakes, beautiful pieces of art that folks can eat. I would love to cater special events and make one-of-a-kind cakes that will be part of the memories of someone’s special occasion.” Here we can understand how heroics can spring not only from acts of selfless bravado but also from the composure, grace, and strength it takes to carry on once the battle has ended.