We are at risk in this nation. I don’t know if we can survive another four years. Do we just follow him into the fire? —Shoshana Johnson
In one week two things happened which, in a saner America, would have put the man behind them to shame. First, Jeffrey Goldberg, in an Atlantic article since corroborated by many others, including a Fox News correspondent, revealed that Trump had called heroic soldiers who died for our country “losers” and “suckers,” had refused to visit a military cemetery in France (and instead cadged art from the American Embassy in Paris), and had kept disabled veterans out of military parades because they were “not a good look.” Second, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, in leaked passages from his new memoir, revealed Trump’s expletive-laden racist excoriations of his predecessor as well as of members of the Black and Hispanic electorates.
And so, I found myself thinking of the calm, reflective woman I’d interviewed in 2004, less than a year after she’d returned to the U.S. as a hero in the first frightening chapter of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Thirty-one years old then, she had walked across the hotel lobby in New York City with such a heavy limp that if she hadn’t been smiling it would have hurt to watch her. Her name was Shoshana Johnson.
On March 23, 2003, on the drive north from Kuwait to Nasiriyah, Johnson and six other members of the 507th U.S. Army Maintenance Company, caravanning in tractors, trucks, and Humvees, were ambushed by Iraqi troops. Johnson was shot in both ankles while more bullets flew around her and her division-mates. She was then punched and beaten by the Iraqi soldiers who grabbed her, tore off her helmet, and, discovering she was a woman, ripped off the top of her chemical suit and separated her from the men. She told me she was “terrified” at the likelihood that, since she was too injured to walk, her captors would just kill her rather than bother to drag her into a tiny prison cell. “Despite the pain,” she’d said, “I made myself hop.”
Two weeks into her captivity, Johnson was blindfolded, tossed into a van with the male P.O.W.’s, and driven around Iraq for 10 days as their captors tried to keep ahead of the American Marines searching for them. But by far Johnson’s biggest nightmare in Iraqi captivity was that her belongings had been confiscated—including her military ID, her driver’s license, and a photo of her two-year-old daughter, Janelle. “The thought of the enemy having Janelle’s picture and our home address was chilling,” she said. Right up until the morning of April 13, 2003, when the Marines kicked in the door where she and her colleagues were being hidden and “half-carried, half-dragged me” to safety after 22 days, “I was terrified that they would come after my daughter.”
Today, it is Janelle who is terrified for her mother.
“Make Sure to Come Home”
When I first contacted Johnson about Trump’s anti-military and anti-Black remarks, she sent me a picture of the note that Janelle, now 20, recently taped onto the refrigerator of the home they share in West Texas. In neat, cheerful print, it reads, “Have a nice day! Stay safe! Turn on the dash cam! Wear the body cam! Watch your surroundings! Check under the car and backseat! Lock the doors when you get in! Be careful of vans and traffic tactics. Make sure to come home.”
Johnson is a military hero within a family of a dozen U.S. service members—her father, sister, aunt, five uncles, and three cousins served or are serving in the army or air force—but it’s her mom’s race that Janelle is hyper-aware of. Janelle, whose father is a white veteran, feels that she is safer in her own, lighter skin than her mother is in the America for which she risked her life. It’s the reason she counseled her mother not to post on social media about the death of George Floyd. “Here she is,” Johnson says, “the daughter of two veterans and the granddaughter of veterans—yet she’s worried about using free speech!”
“The thought of the enemy having Janelle’s picture and our home address was chilling.”
Johnson is real-deal military. Raised, with her sisters, by her mother and her army-sergeant father at bases in Colorado, Germany, California, and her home state of Texas, she has spent much of her post-discharge time as an active member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, volunteering with the local veterans corps and mentoring younger fellow vets with PTSD. (She herself has been hospitalized for it three times.)
Johnson may have felt “very, very angry” when, in 2017, John Kelly, then Trump’s secretary of homeland security and later his chief of staff, made disparaging remarks about immigration. Still, she says, “to me he will always be Marine general Kelly, and he has my respect for giving over 20 years of service to our country and having raised a son who gave his life for it.” And she may be planning to volunteer for the Biden campaign, but, as she wrote me five years ago, “I consider Chris Kyle”—the late U.S. Navy Seal known as the American Sniper—“a rock star!” So her remarks are to be taken as that of a proud member of the armed forces at a moment when, according to an August 31 poll (before the Atlantic reporting came in), 50 percent of enlisted service members disapprove of Trump and 38 percent approve of him.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know why people are shocked by what Trump said,” Johnson tells me this week. “His comments about Senator McCain”—ridiculing his five years as a P.O.W., protesting lowering the flag when he died—“showed who he was. He dodged the draft, and when a military person doesn’t kowtow to him he calls them names and belittles their service. I don’t believe he has any respect for veterans.”
And military people take it personally, Johnson says. She points to the time Trump compared sex to going to battle in Vietnam. “I have a great-uncle who is a Vietnam vet, and that joke hurt him.”
Then there was the time Trump claimed he knew more about ISIS than our generals did. “These are people who have committed years of their lives to protecting Americans’ interests! A veteran in Colorado I saw on TV said it perfectly: ‘He understands the significance of the veteran vote, but he doesn’t understand the sacrifice.’”
“There are so many people who say he’s not a racist,” Johnson says, “but actions speak louder than words. He was cited for not renting and selling to people of color long before he even started running for president. And I think if a Black man hadn’t been president, he would never have run. His whole administration seems to ignore that there’s an issue with race—and sexism. It’s deeply disturbing how many women stand with him and say [his misogynistic remarks] are not a problem.”
Johnson is puzzled that Mitt Romney, so vocal during Trump’s impeachment hearings, is staying mum now. She’s also puzzled at General Mattis’s silence; despite saying that Trump was “averse to the Constitution—that really hit my soul!—he isn’t speaking out now. I don’t know why. Maybe Kelly and Mattis are too numb to it.” Just as Johnson will always appreciate Kelly’s service to the country, her voice rises in emotion as she recalls that “it was Mattis who was the commander of the Marines at the time that they rescued me! Mattis served in his administration. He had insight. He knew something needs to be done.”
“Trump understands the significance of the veteran vote, but he doesn’t understand the sacrifice.”
“We are at risk as a nation,” she says. “Russia is buzzing our [aircraft]; there’s a pandemic and major racial unrest. Where is the line? Is this 2020 or 1920? We seem to be rolling backward. I don’t know if we can survive another four years.” Still, Johnson, who published her memoir, I’m Still Standing, in 2011, is an optimist. For one thing, “it’s amazing how so many female P.O.W.’s had daughters! Even the ones from the past, like Melissa Coleman, the first female P.O.W. from Desert Storm, and Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, also from that war.” As for her two fellow female division mates, Lori Piestewa (who tragically died in the ambush) had a daughter (as well as a son), and Jessica Lynch (severely injured) would later give birth to a daughter.
Johnson’s feelings about America today stand in stark contrast with the ones she had on that mid-February 2003 day when she, Lynch, and Piestewa got together for deployment. Piestewa was Native American, Johnson Black, and Lynch was a white native of Appalachia. They became confidantes in an America that existed then and, Johnson hopes, will soon re-invigorate itself.
Johnson and Lynch—who is teaching in West Virginia, where she lives with her 13-year-old daughter—stay in very close touch. Every year, there is a memorial service for Piestewa in her native Arizona, where the two survivors catch up in person. Johnson keeps pictures of Piestewa’s children on her refrigerator, right near that note from Janelle.
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge