EL PASO, Texas–When the order came, Shoshana Johnson gave no outward signs of anguish over being sent into war. Instead, she calmly planned for family take care of her 2-year-old daughter and got her finances in order.
“She just took it as, ‘This is my job, and this is what I have to do, and so let me do it,'” recalled Erika Johnson, Shoshana’s sister, one of the family members struggling to deal with the news of her capture by Iraqi forces. “She said, ‘This is the Army life, and this is what you have to do.'”
The Johnson family, perhaps more than most, understands what Army life means. Claude Johnson, Shoshana’s father, is a retired sergeant first class who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The uncles of her mother, Eunice, served in Vietnam. Shoshana is the oldest of three daughters, and her other sister, Nikki, is an Army captain stationed at Ft. Lee, Va.
Shoshana, 30, joined the army in 1998, but her first contact with the military came as a teenager, when she was a member of the Andress High School ROTC drill team.
“She said (military life) was hard, but that she would do what it takes,” Erika Johnson said. “The benefits outweighed the negatives. It was better for her, better for her daughter.”
Yet nothing in the family’s extensive military history truly prepared them for this moment in this modern war, watching Shoshana’s fear-haunted face, her eyes darting about, as she identified herself for Iraqi captors who have made her a prisoner of war.
To the disbelief of her father, who had been clicking through channels Sunday morning in search of a cartoon to amuse his granddaughter, Janelle, there came descriptions of a prisoner of war that he knew could be only his daughter. An African-American woman, 30 years old, with the 507th Maintenance Company, named “Shana.”
“It’s got to be my daughter,” he said, in televised remarks, he finally admitted to himself.
On Tuesday, the family still was struggling with the news.
Shoshana had joined the Army to get experience cooking, a first step toward realizing her dream of becoming a chef, possibly having her own restaurant or pastry shop one day, her sister said. Her chicken enchiladas are a family favorite, and she loved to make her father’s favorite dessert, pineapple upside-down cake.
“It never even crossed our mind that she’d be right up in the front lines,” Erika Johnson said. “When it happened, we thought it (couldn’t be) her.”
With 4,500 of Ft. Bliss’ 12,000 active-duty soldiers deployed, news of the tragedy that befell the 507th hit home in El Paso, where the base is the largest employer. The faces of five captured soldiers and others listed as missing lined the top of the front page of the El Paso Times.
And Shoshana, more than the others, who were from all over the nation, was El Paso’s own. At the University of Texas El Paso, where Shoshana once was a student, a campaign was under way to cover the campus with yellow ribbons, a remembrance of the prisoners of war. Organizer Ann Lee said the effort had encountered one stumbling block. Finding spools of yellow ribbon has proved difficult because local fabric stores have sold out.
“It’s a great day to be a soldier!” read a sign in capital letters on an overpass near Ft. Bliss, a jarring promotional slogan that seems eerie as the base waits to hear just how many of its soldiers are listed as missing or captured.
In a city so proud of its role in the 1991 Gulf War that it named a local highway the Patriot Freeway, after the Patriot missile, the mood is somber. Fred Hudson, the Church of Christ minister who is Ft. Bliss’ base chaplain, said to a gathering of reporters, “It’s a time of great prayer. It’s a time of deep emotion.”
The same was true for the Johnsons, a Catholic family. Though her mother gave Shoshana a rosary before the deployment, Erika Johnson said she felt her sister had a wellspring of strength, stemming from the little girl she left behind, to confront the ordeal of being a prisoner of war.
“She’ll be thinking about getting back home to her daughter,” Erika said confidently.
She described Shoshana as a good mother, a good sister and a good daughter. Outgoing with a devious sense of humor, Shoshana is known for playing tricks. When they were little, Erika vividly recalled, Shoshana once convinced her younger sisters that there were people inside the box called the radio, and she could manipulate them to sing whatever songs she wanted.
The family had spoken to her Thursday, and her sister had received an e-mail from her on Friday. In typical fashion, Shoshana said little about herself, other than to mention that there was “a lot of sand.” Instead she used the occasion to inquire about her daughter and the rest of the family at home.
“Take care of Janelle and make sure Mom and Dad are doing well,” her sister said she wrote.
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