I’m Still Standing: From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen—My Journey Home
I was working in my college dining hall when I first caught wind of Jessica Lynch’s capture back in 2003. As I scraped steam trays, I compared our situations. She is a brave soldier somewhere in the sands of Iraq. I am a pansy who spent her days in purgatorial peace in the tundra of upstate New York. I didn’t know—many people didn’t know—that five other soldiers, including Shoshana Johnson, the first African-American female prisoner of war, were also being held. I’m Still Standing, recounts the capture and twenty-two-day imprisonment of Johnson and four male co-prisoners at the dawn of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Johnson is many things: an army cook, a survivor, a mother, and a brave woman who endured great hardship for her nation. She is not a professional writer, though, and it shows. Writing this book has undoubtedly been therapeutic for her, and it gave her a platform to tell the world her story, but as a reader I found myself desiring deeper contemplations on her experience than what she provided. We get a play-by-play, and I wanted a reflection.
This book presents several potentially riveting subjects, such as how the military portrays itself for the media, the ethics of keeping prisoners, the perception of the Iraqi people, and the experience of a female soldier. Being an American female solider serving in the Middle East seems like a particular double-whammy, since women remain a minority in the military and many countries in the Middle East traditionally treat women in a way many Westerners find unacceptable.
Johnson had many experiences during her ordeal that are unique to a female solider. When her gender was discovered by her captors, they stopped beating her while the beating of male soldiers continued. Johnson was held in a different room separate from her male co-prisoners for several days, and she hints about feeling ignored by the men. Later, after telling her captors that she was not married, some began to say that she should marry an Iraqi man, a comment she feared was not a joke. At one point a cloth was tossed over her body to conceal her exposed skin and she was told, “This is Iraq.” After her rescue, she found that many people assumed she was raped in captivity.
Many scenes are ripe with poignancy, but I feel she ran over them in an attempt to remember everything, and gave herself no room to meditate on what it meant. It seems every time a chance to explore subjects in depth was presented, the author merely skims the surface and moves on. I recall a quote from writer Lucy Grealy, who was asked how she remembered the details of her childhood that resulted in her book Autobiography of a Face. She replied, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” Indeed, nonfiction writing needs to have that organic quality to it.
After Johnson’s rescue and return, the book morphs into a defense against accusations she says were piled upon her by the Army and the media. Many lines are unveiled attempts to send personal messages to people in her life, such as an old lover. That can be done in a private, rather than in a national publication.
Despite the limitations of the book, this soldier endured hardships, and I thank her for having the courage to fight for the nation and to tell her story.