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Standing-Room-Only Ovation for Soldier

Ex-POW Johnson pays a whirlwind visit to L.A. to say thanks for the support.

June 07, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Former prisoner of war Shoshana Johnson stepped into a swarm Friday in front of First United Christian Church in South Los Angeles. Reporters and photographers mobbed her. Men begged for autographs. Women pointed disposable cameras. Children reached out to touch her.

Inside the packed church, the cheering congregation gave Army Spc. Johnson three standing ovations even as she kept motioning for them to sit down.

She was here to say thank you on a whirlwind visit to this church, Crenshaw High School, and the Jackie Robinson American Legion -- all in less than 24 hours -- at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).

She visited this particular church because a cousin who lives nearby had asked the pastor, Rev. Maurice Johnson (no relation), to pray for the Army cook after she was captured in Iraq on March 23. The prayers continued for Johnson, who was shot in both ankles during her ordeal, until she was rescued by U.S. Marines on April 12 and returned home to El Paso.

Although she appreciates the support, which included 17 resolutions from politicians and an invitation from the president of Panama to return to the country of her birth, Johnson admitted it's all a bit much.

She can't fathom why anyone considers her a hero. She says she was just doing her job.

"The heroes are my comrades who gave their lives," she told the church audience, "and there are so many Marines who risked their lives to make sure I came home to my family and my daughter."

She asked the church to "continue to pray for the soldiers who are still over there, including my cousin, Andre Amantine, who is in Baghdad at this moment -- especially for him because, unfortunately, he missed the birth of his third daughter in order to serve his country and do his duty."

Amantine is from Los Angeles. His parents, Fernando and Joanne, are part of Johnson's large extended Panamanian American family. They live in Lancaster and were at the church with Johnson.

Johnson, 30, was not permitted to discuss details of her ordeal pending an Army investigation. But the Pentagon has said she was captured with a group of soldiers that included Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Johnson said she is especially proud of Lynch, who is also a member of the 507th Maintenance Company.

"She was in the convoy with us also," Johnson said between stops on Friday. "After everything went down, we were totally separated. We had no idea she was alive. We didn't know until the Marines rescued us and told us ... that Lynch was alive," Johnson said. "We were very hap- py."

"Lynch is a little thing," she added. "When we left, she had lost a lot of weight in Kuwait. She didn't like eating [the military's prepackaged meals]. She was barely 100 pounds, maybe 98. She had lost so much weight, and for her to make it through with her injuries, it shows how strong she is."

Because she and Lynch were female POWs, a rarity, Johnson says, they get the most mail.

"A lot of it is from older ladies," she said of the letters and cards that have poured in from around the United States, Australia, England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Israel "and all over."

Speaking to seniors at Crenshaw High School, she said: "Most of you don't realize exactly how free you are."

"When I went to Iraq, I saw a lot of things that made me appreciate exactly what kind of freedom we have here. Yesterday I went to the store and bought the things I needed.

"You can't do that in those countries, and I am thankful for the people who went before me to ensure my freedom."

During the high school assembly, a freelance photographer made a request she found annoying.

"He wanted me to hold out my cast and point to it," Johnson explained. She refused. "I'm not glorifying getting shot. Getting shot is no fun."

Although this was her first visit to the high school, it was not her first time in Los Angeles. When her father, a former drill sergeant, joined the military, the family moved in with relatives in Southern California.

"We lived in Inglewood when I was younger," she said. "I remember being able to see the Forum and hear the cars and all that. My mom was a Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] fan."

At the American Legion hall, her final stop here, Johnson ate chicken, macaroni and cheese and collard greens as Panamanian dancers whirled in a room filled with elderly veterans on the anniversary of D-day. The celebration ended but Johnson's day did not.

She still had three or four media interviews to do before her evening flight back to Texas.

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