NEW YORK – Nearly a year after being shot and taken prisoner in Iraq, former Army specialist Shoshana Johnson (search) said the 22 days she spent in captivity do not make her a hero.
"I'm a survivor, not a hero," Johnson told Essence magazine in its March issue. "The heroes are the soldiers who paid the ultimate price and the Marines who risked their lives to rescue us. ... They took a chance and because they did, I'm here."
Johnson, 31, of El Paso, Texas, was a cook for the 507th Maintenance Company (search) when it was ambushed in March 2003. She was shot in both ankles and captured with five other soldiers, including Jessica Lynch (search). Nine U.S. soldiers died in the attack.
In an interview, Johnson said she was slapped and punched by her captors until her helmet flew off, exposing her braided hair.
"That's when they realized I was a woman," Johnson said. "They stopped beating me and immediately separated me from the others."
After undergoing surgery for her gunshot wounds, Johnson said, she began to refuse pain medications offered by Iraqi doctors. "When the doctor asked me if I wanted more, I said no," Johnson said. "He commented, 'Strong woman."'
She said at the time she thought, "I'm not a strong woman. It hurts!"
Johnson said she was not sexually assaulted, describing her captors as generally sympathetic, even protective. At one prison the guards told her to "stay and marry an Iraqi man," Johnson said.
"At first I thought it was a joke," she said, until one guard expressed interest in her "and even tried to hold my hand." After that happened, an older Iraqi guard began sleeping outside her cell door.
"He did that, I think, to protect me," Johnson said.
Johnson said she "had long conversations with God" and concentrated on eventually being free. She thought about her daughter Janelle, then 2, hoping she would return home to see Janelle grow up, finish school and get married.
When she was reunited with her daughter, the child was afraid of the brace and cast she wore on her legs, Johnson said. "She stood back and just kept saying, 'Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?' And I would say, 'Yes.' And she would smile."
Johnson said she has difficulty sleeping and suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. "There's still some pain and swelling in my feet," Johnson said. "I also have back problems now. I can't lift my daughter."
Johnson was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal for her service in Iraq and was honorably discharged late last year.