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Then & Now: Shoshana Johnson

Then: A videotape of Shoshana Johnson's interrogation while a POW was broadcast around the world early in the Iraq war.



United States
U.S. Army

(CNN) -- In March 2003, when her battalion was ambushed in Iraq, Spc. Shoshana Johnson became America's first black female prisoner of war. Today, Johnson is out of the military, but she shares her story in lectures across the country.

Americans were first introduced to Johnson -- a U.S. Army cook with the 507th Maintenance Company out of Fort Bliss, Texas -- early in the war when videotape of her interrogation with her Iraqi captors was broadcast worldwide on television.

During the gruff interview, Johnson looked tense, her eyes darting quickly left, then right. Barely an hour before, she'd been shot in both ankles and captured along with five other soldiers, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was badly wounded and was held prisoner at a separate location.

Nine of Johnson's fellow soldiers died in the standoff, including her close friend, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman killed in combat.

"I was terrified. I didn't know what was going to happen to me," Johnson recalled in a recent CNN interview. "And I was in a lot of pain."

Johnson's ordeal began when her supply convoy took a wrong turn in the desert near the city of Nasiriya and was ambushed and captured by Iraqis.

During captivity, Johnson and the other POWs were moved several times. She was treated for her wounds, even enduring a surgery where she was put under general anesthetic.

"I feared for my life the whole captivity," she says. "I was trying to keep as much information to myself ... they ask you where you from? Texas? You know they ask your name. You know you're giving them a little bit of info, but I don't want to give them everything."

Johnson and the other POWs spent 22 days as prisoners until Marines rescued them. They returned to the United States to great fanfare and instant celebrity.

Johnson appeared on talk shows and even got to drop the ball in New York's Times Square on New Year's Eve 2003.

"As a cook in the Army, do you ever think you're going to go to a Golden Globe after-party and [meet] Queen Latifah?" she says. "You never think that's going to happen, but it did."

But Lynch got a million-dollar book deal and more in disability payments from the military than Johnson. Some said it was an issue of race, but Johnson wasn't one of them. And she says reports that she and Lynch were at odds aren't true.

"Everything happens for a reason," she told CNN. "I've had a lot of good fortune. I'm healthy. My family's healthy: my daughters, my nieces. I don't ask God for anything more than that."

In December 2003 Johnson was discharged from the Army. She'd served her country for five years, and along the way was awarded the the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal for her service in Iraq.

Today, she spends as much time as possible with her young daughter at their El Paso, Texas, home and tours the country for speaking engagements at corporations and schools.

"I have a little bit of influence with some young people that I speak to which is really unbelievable to me, and I try my best to influence them in, I think, a positive way," she says. "But it can be stressful at times because you feel like: if I make a misstep, everybody's going to be there watching."

Johnson says she still struggles with the psychological scars of her time in Iraq, but talking with a psychiatrist and veterans from the Vietnam War helps her.

"I've had the honor to speak with some of the Vietnam vets, and they've told me basically that you're going to be dealing with this for the next 20 years, the next 30 years to come," she says. "And it actually helps. Because it doesn't make me feel like I'm crazy or that I'll never get better or that it'll never get easier. They really help me out a lot."

She also considers herself lucky, considering many soldiers return from the war zone with severe burns or lost limbs. The whole experience has made her appreciate life more, she says.

"I think I'm a stronger person," Johnson says. "Things don't bother me as much, you know? Quite frankly, I'm just so very happy to be still on this earth."

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