Three-fifths of a heroine?


White men don’t fight and die for America like they used to. This country’s poor and marginalized have always been the ones first to leave its shores to defend it. During the Vietnam era, America’s military was heavily reliant on poor ethnic minorities. In 1973, 23% of the military was of non-white, non-Hispanic racial minorities; in 2000, that number was 37%. The New York Times tells us that Southern and Western states may provide far more members to the military today than they did during the Vietnam-era draft. Perhaps that explains the swath of red on the 2000 Electoral College map….

The Times also tells us that women comprise 2% of the deaths in Iraq: “The numbers may seem small: five women have died. [But i]n all the years of the Vietnam War, only eight American women died.”

And while America negotiates these bleak figures, the resolve of our female service members remains stronger than ever! The military has enjoyed marked growth in female membership. Our country’s security and honor remains in tact because of the dedicated service and sacrifice of our female armed services personnel.

And what is true of most female servicewomen is especially so of black women: In the Army, black women, who are but 16% of the female civilian population (yet outnumber white female servicewomen) have continued to make critical contributions to the American armed services.

Women like Army Spec. Shoshanna Johnson.

Shoshanna Johnson, a single mother from Medina, Texas, was part of the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company that took a wrong turn in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya and was ambushed.

Shoshanna joined the military motivated by a different breed of heroism. Refusing to go on welfare to support herself and her young daughter, Johnson enlisted as an army cook. During the ambush, the 30-year old Johnson was shot through both ankles and was taken as the only African-American POW. The March 23 ambush would not only magnify the heroism of Johnson and the 6 other POWs from the 507th held for 22 days; it would also exalt the contributions of 19-year old Jessica Lynch and 23-year old Lori Piestewa – Piestewa being the first women to die in the Iraq War and the first Native American woman to die in service to the United States.

Piestewa, an integral part of the 507th, was a single mother of two who left her four-year old son and three-year old daughter with her parents in a trailer in Tuba City, Arizona while she went to answer the President’s call to arms in the Middle East.

In answering that call, this American heroine paid the ultimate price.

The Humvee that Piestewa and Lynch were driving was overturned during the Iraqi attack. Lynch was injured, hospitalized and eventually rescued by the Special Forces on April 2. Piestewa, along with 10 other members of the 507th, was killed. Six others, including Johnson, would remain POWs until their April 13 release.

Was white America ready for their return home?

America welcomed these three women home in different ways: Lynch returned to waving flags and news affiliates clamoring for an interview with the rosy cheeked poster child of the American military; Johnson came home to a 30% disability benefit for the injuries she received while a prisoner of war in Iraq; Piestewa returned to her native land in a box draped with the banner of double standards and half-truths.

The United States Army has rewarded the heroism of Jessica Lynch with an 80% disability benefit.

Peanuts in comparison with the amount she’ll receive from her new book deal.

National Urban League president Marc H. Morial prepared a letter to the U.S. Army’s Acting Secretary, Les Brownlee, to conduct an immediate inquiry into the Army’s decision to award Johnson a 30% disability benefit. Mr. Morial makes clear in his letter that Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Spec. Johnson were captured at the same time in the same attack, and that Johnson was released a week later and is still recovering from gunshot wounds to both of her ankles. “Yet,” the letter states, “Pfc. Lynch is receiving an 80 percent disability benefit compared to Spec. Johnson’s 30 percent.”

Par for the course for a Bush administration that fell $1.5 billion short of adequately funding veteran care.

Appearing at a rally in her honor in Texas, Shoshanna Johnson is far from bitter. Looking bright-eyed and engaging, she implored the crowd: “Appreciate the freedom that you have. So many have died for what you enjoy today; so many that I knew have died for what you enjoy today. So appreciate it – and take advantage of all the opportunities that are open to you… because you will make the difference.”

Kinda like you, Shoshanna.

Happy Veterans Day.

Garry Grundy’s column appears biweekly.

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