From POW to Pastry Chef

Once a prisoner in Iraq, Shoshana Johnson soldiers on.

Imagine being gunned down and swarmed by a circle of angry men, triumphantly whooping while they kick you in your face, your gut, your bullet-ridden legs. That's what happened to American soldier Shoshana Johnson soon after the start of the Iraq War, when her unit was ambushed in the town of An Nasiriyah. A 30-year-old mother of a toddler at the time, Johnson became a prisoner of war with eight others, including Jessica Lynch. In a new book, I'm Still Standing, Johnson describes her experience — and the lasting effects.

Q. Iraqi soldiers held you captive for 22 days, in seven different places, from prisons to private homes — while you had bullet holes in your body and a seriously wounded leg. How did you stay sane?

A. I didn't think I'd make it through the ambush and capture — I thought I'd instantly die of fright. So when I survived that, I kept thinking, I've just got to do the best I can. I was definitely terrified. The fact that I had piercings and tattoos didn't help: The guards were like, "What the hell?" But they treated me decently and tried to tend to my leg. It helped knowing that other guys from my unit were there. I was the only woman [Jessica Lynch had been captured separately], and I was kept apart from the men, but I could hear them talking through the walls.

Q. Describe your escape...

A. The Marines found us on a tip. I remember the crash of the door being broken down and men yelling, "Get down!" I was thinking: I hear clear English. A Marine pushed me to the ground, which is standard procedure. They need everyone to get down, so they can take stock of the situation. But when I was told to make a run for it, I couldn't because of my leg. So a Marine half-carried me and dragged me out, while taking gunfire outside. After that, I broke down in tears and didn't stop for quite some time. Doctors reset my leg the next morning in Kuwait.

Q. Back home, your family knew you had PTSD before you did.

 Yeah, I didn't want to hear it. The first thing out of me was, "I'm fine." But I was emotional, crying all the time or angry; I didn't want to leave the house. In the Army, you're trained to suck it up and drive on. If something's bothering you, you've still got to get the mission done. When you come home, how can you say, "I'm hurting"? That's just not what we're trained to do.

Q. Jessica Lynch's story got massively hyped, with the military saying she went down shooting like Rambo, when really her gun had jammed. Why do you think she became the Army's poster girl?

 She was rescued about 10 days before the rest of us; there was no sign of the rest of us at that time. So her rescue was good news, and the military pumped it up, but the problem is, they made some of it up. I think if they had just stuck to the truth, it would have been fine. It was good enough to find her alive; they didn't have to make things up.

Q. The military created a myth about football star Pat Tillman too, trying to hide the fact that he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan...

A. Yes, Pat Tillman left a promising NFL career to join the Army after 9/11. His actions were just incredible — how many people would do that? The military didn't have to lie. The parents who raised this kind of man could have taken the truth.

Q. You had to fight a new battle back here, over your medical retirement money...

A. Yes, the Army didn't want to acknowledge the fact that I had PTSD. I think it goes back to that issue of being a soldier and sucking it up. The guys who are making these decisions are often soldiers, so they're sitting there saying, "What is she complaining about?" After two years, they finally relented.

Q. Some of your colleagues resented the attention you and your fellow POWs received — the invitations to high-profile events and TV shows. Did that surprise you?

A. Very much so. I didn't expect any animosity. Being a POW was not something I would've wanted. If I could go back and take it all away, I would. I remember one soldier saying, "Hey, I went to Iraq too. I went through it." And I was like, "Really? Did you get shot and held captive for 22 days?"

Q. Would you let your daughter join the military?

A. If that's something she chooses to do, I'll back her, but I'll have to sit down and explain what it's really like — not like the commercials. I'm very grateful for those who continue to join after seeing the images of war on TV. For everyone who signed on the dotted line after seeing all this, God bless you.

Q. How has the recovery process gone?

 It's ongoing. I've been on and off antidepressants and sleeping pills to help with the nightmares. A couple weeks ago I was watching Law & Order, and they were talking about solitary confinement. I started thinking about how alone I'd felt for so long, and then I didn't sleep that night. It's a journey.

Q. What are you up to now?

A. I'm studying to be a pastry chef, and I love it. It was a long road here — I'd signed up for the military so I could get to culinary school. When we had our recent baking final, a couple of the girls starting crying because they didn't think they did well. And I thought, You're crying over this? I said, "Nobody has died. No one lost a limb. Oh my goodness, your muffins didn't come out right? Stop crying this minute!"

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.