Monday, March 2, 2015

"I'm Still Standing" by Shoshana Johnson (2010)

In this well constructed memoir Shoshana Johnson recounts her ordeal as an Iraqi Prisoner of War in the early days of the fighting to topple Saddam Hussein. If I countenance the book as unusual it is only because it is only in the past few years that women have been involved in combat roles in our military. This may be the first memoir I have read about combat which was written by an American woman-soldier. I don’t know why this book did not garner more attention at the time it was released.

Perhaps; and I offer this with a bit of cynicism, although there is some truth to it; we were all too wrapped up in the story about Jessica Lynch; the pretty blond white woman who was in the same convoy as Ms. Johnson.  If you recall she was the first captive rescued and has had books, movies and television specials lauding her courage under fire. The initial reports claimed that she fired her M-16 until it was out of ammo were later proved to be incorrect.

Much to her credit is the fact that she testified before Congress in 2007 that in actuality she never fired her weapon; which jammed at about the same time she was knocked unconscious. When asked about all the media hype that stated otherwise she responded by saying, "That wasn't me. I'm not about to take credit for something I didn't do. I'm just a survivor."

I could not go on to review this book without noting the inequity in the media coverage of the two women. And I can’t help but notice that when a white woman goes missing the word goes out a lot quicker than for an African-American one. It’s sad; but unfortunately true. I don’t know whether to blame the media or society itself; I can only note the difference. Now; on to the book.

This was a pleasure to read. It was written with alternating chapters; one would take place in Iraq; and then the next goes back to her childhood. There are chapters on her schooling; her decision to join the Army; and what it is like to be a woman in the Army. And of course, the clincher here is her account of how she was treated at the hands of her captors in a Muslim country. Surprisingly, they weren’t treated too harshly; although being locked in a cell all day could hardly be called humane.

The captives were given medicine for their wounds, as well as surgery in Ms. Johnson’s case. She had sustained serious wounds to both legs; leaving her at the mercy of her captors in matters like using the toilet, etc. Of all the POW accounts I have read, this may be one of the most interesting in respect to the treatment of women POW’s; which is a new thing for Americans.

Her description of the debacle which brought them under fire to begin with is interesting. Had they gone around the town where they were ambushed; rather than through it; the attack may not have occurred.   Also of interest is how the communications equipment did not function at all. The constant jamming of the M-16’s; which are designed for close range jungle fighting, and also urban warfare; were ill equipped to deal with both the distances involved in desert fighting, as well as the problem with sand jamming the weapon.

Having been in the service I can tell you that it is elementary knowledge that sand is a problem. Remember the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages in the late 1970’s? It was either 1979 or 1980. But the point is that the helicopter which malfunctioned during refueling in the desert went down for lack of a burlap sack to act as  a filter for the sand entering the engine intakes. Sometimes the command decisions just don’t add up.

The book goes on to describe Ms. Johnson’s rehabilitation upon her return to the states via Germany; a place she was once an “Army brat” while growing up. Her father; a Panamanian immigrant to the United States was a career soldier I the U.S. Army; as is the author’s sister.

This book is an interesting and informative narrative of what it is like to be on the front lines of the war on terror as a soldier; a minority; and as a woman. The special needs of the woman soldier; leaving children behind, and more; are mind boggling. You can’t read this book without developing admiration for Ms. Johnson, and all the rest who serve.  Whether you agree with mission or not, people such as Ms. Johnson are highly motivated in their desire to defend the freedoms which we take for granted. 

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