When Shoshana Johnson signed up to join the Army as a cook, she was told she was undertaking a “safe job.” However, upon her deployment to Iraq, she soon realized that the Army has no safe jobs.
In 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Johnson’s maintenance company was traveling as part of a 600-vehicle convoy toward Baghdad. But her unit fell behind and missed a turn, causing them to travel into the enemy-controlled territory of Al Nasiriyah.
“We were lost and I was worried because the Iraqis had time to set up an ambush,” said Johnson. “We could hear gunfire hitting our vehicle. The adrenaline started going; I was terrified.”
Her company was pushed off the road by an Iraqi truck. Suddenly, she felt a burn in her legs and realized she had been hit. She was then dragged away while getting kicked and punched by her captors.
“You automatically think, rape, torture, kill,” she said.
Blindfolded and hands tied, Johnson along with other soldiers from her unit were taken to a Baghdad prison.
The prisoners of war were interrogated and moved seven times over the course of 22 days. Then, thanks to a tip from an Iraqi informant, U.S. Marines located the POWs 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Johnson recalls a Sunday morning when, the door suddenly was knocked down and she heard the voices of American service members coming to rescue them.
“It was glorious. It was glorious,” she recalled.
The battle that followed her home
When the troops returned home, Johnson was put in the spotlight as the first black female POW in U.S. military history.
“We were not happy with all the attention. We were rescued, were thrust into the limelight, and we had no moment to grieve for those who passed away. So, it’s difficult for us,” she said.
Nearly two decades later, Johnson is still coping with the weight of the 11 members who were killed in the ambush.
“She was fearful of the crowds. Her eyes were still darting from side to side,” Johnson’s aunt, Margaret Thorne-Henderson, recalled, “like somebody that was going to be captured again; sort of what we saw in this clip that was shown when she was captured originally.”
PTSD can appear years later
“Data shows, yes, their military experience and any traumatic experiences — life-threatening experiences, combat experiences and deployment — those are all major factors. But, they don’t really tell the whole story about what culminates and accrues to their suffering and potential disability later on in their life,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
PTSD symptoms can start soon after an event but in some cases the effects may not appear until months or years later. They can even come and go over the years. Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD in a given year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Within two months, Johnson was diagnosed with PTSD and began treatment, which she has continued to this day.
Thorne-Henderson, her aunt, observed that Johnson and others with PTSD know something is wrong, but they struggle to put their finger on it because symptoms often go unnoticed.
“You don’t realize as you’re trying to go forward, what’s going to trigger a memory in your head. It could be a smell, a sound, seeing a picture, it’s a lot of different things,” Johnson said.
Being with other veterans with whom she can “go back to the basics of what we did together” is what Johnson said helps her deal with the symptoms of PTSD.
“For a lot of veterans, it can’t be done by yourself. If you could, you would [have] already done it,” said Johnson. “Seeking help doesn’t make you less. It makes you stronger because you know that you have weaknesses and how to build upon yourself to grow bigger.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, review of free resources offering treatment options for military veterans.
This is the third episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.