Thursday, April 1, 2010

Believe Nothing you Hear and Half of What you See

That old saying has been running through my mind lately as I've been reading Shoshana Johnson's new autobiography I'm Still Standing; From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen - My Journey Home. If you don't know her name it's not surprising. You see, she was the OTHER female soldier, the first African American female POW, wounded and held in various homes and prisons over a 22 day period at the very beginning of the ill-conceived Iraq War.

This book was a gift from my friend Don who is on what must often feel like a one man mission to improve and showcase strong images of African Americans in the arts and literature. This all began when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in their dubious wisdom, announced that the best song of the year was It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp from the outstanding movie Crash. Then they completely overlooked the wonderful Denzel Washington project, The Great Debaters.

Each year things seem to have gone downhill with the culmination of this year's best picture nominee Precious which Don refused to watch. For the record, I did watch this movie the other night and found much to be positive about, especially the delightful Paula Patton who played the teacher, Ms. Rain, who ran the alternative school where Precious's talent as a writer were encouraged and where she found her first semblance of a family among the other students.

So back to Ms. Johnson who, with Army veteran and writer M.L. Doyle, has penned an honest, fast paced book about life in the military, (her dad was a career Army veteran as is her sister) life as a single mother with a fantastic supportive family, and the strong friendships forged in combat. Trained as a cook, Ms. Johnson had absolutely no expectation that she would ever have to use her military training to protect and defend herself or others. Neither did her female cohorts, Jessica Lynch or Lori Piestewa.

The story of their tragic miscalculations, getting lost on a routine convoy mission to Baghdad, trying to turn around in the city of Nasiryah, being attacked and at a loss to defend themselves with faulty weapons that stuck and misfired, was all over the news when it happened. The media, aided and abetted by the Pentagon as they tried to drum up hatred for the Iraqis and support of the unpopular war, chose petite, blond, country girl Jessica Lynch to be their pawn. To her huge credit, she eventually realized how she had been used, the lies told about her supposed heroics and has since testified before congress in the Pat Tillman case. Speaking of which, John Krakauer's book about Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, is on my mp3 player.

Meanwhile, Shoshana Johnson, shot in both legs and suffering excruciating pain during her captivity, wondered constantly about the safety of her friends Jessica and Lori. At one point during the ordeal a kind-hearted (and there were lots of them and isn't that a story?) Iraqi guard whispered to her that he had heard that a young, blond woman from her group was alive and in the hospital. Lori, they later found out, had died of her injuries when the Humvee in which she and Jessica were riding was hit by a roadside bomb and overturned. Iraqi doctors performed surgery on Shoshana and seemed to really take an interest in her outcome. Cynics may say that they were fearful of losing a prisoner of war but Shoshana doesn't believe that and neither do I.

A disturbing outcome of all this is the way the media tried to portray an imaginary rift between the two women, Shoshana and Jessica. In fact, they make appearances together even as they hope to put this period of their lives behind them and remain friends as only people with the shared horror of a war experience can do. The fact that the military originally awarded a much higher percentage of disability benefits to Jessica and less to Shoshana got the rumor mill going. Shoshana, with the help of Jessie Jackson and his wife, fought for her benefits and won and is now an articulate, educated spokesperson for PTSD from which she still suffers.

Thanks to Don for an eye-opening, excellent read. I highly recommend it.

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