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Sunday, November 09, 2003 - Page updated at 12:01 A.M.

A case of race? One POW acclaimed, another ignored

By William Douglas
Knight Ridder Newspapers

U.S. Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, who had been held by Iraqi troops as a prisoner of war, is escorted by U.S. troops April 13 when seven POWs were released into Marine custody.
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WASHINGTON — Tonight, NBC will air its made-for-TV movie celebrating Pvt. Jessica Lynch, whose capture and rescue have been the feel-good story of America's invasion of Iraq.

But some African Americans don't feel so good about Lynch's story. Instead, they ask: What about Shoshana Johnson?

Johnson, an Army specialist, belonged to the same 507th Maintenance Company as Lynch. Unlike Lynch, Johnson fought to stave off its Iraqi captors. Like Lynch, she sustained serious injuries.

But only Lynch got the headlines, the TV movie, the prime-time television interviews and a biography written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. Lynch, in short, got the full American celebrity treatment, while Johnson largely got ignored.

Many African Americans think that's simply because she didn't have the right "face."

Johnson, who was shot in both ankles, will get only 30 percent of her monthly pay in disability benefits. Lynch, who had a head injury and broken bones in her right arm, right leg, thighs and ankle, will get 80 percent disability pay.

"Shoshana is getting the shaft, and people are outraged about it," said Mary Mason, a Philadelphia talk-radio host whose show was bombarded with callers complaining about the disparity in treatment. "It's ridiculous, and complete racism."

Johnson and her family in El Paso, Texas, say they have no proof that the issue is rooted in racism, but they've engaged the Rev. Jesse Jackson to press the Army to increase her disability benefits.

Army officials say both women's disability benefits are based on the extent of their injuries and how they will affect their employment and lifestyle.

"There is no double standard in the Army," Army officials said in a written release about the controversy. "Every soldier is treated equally when they go before a Physical Evaluation Board and in all situations race is not an issue."

Lynch and Johnson get different benefits because a military Physical Evaluation Board placed them in different categories, the Army said.

Lynch was put on a Temporary Disability List, meaning she can stay in the Army for up to five years and her condition can be re-evaluated periodically. If her condition doesn't improve, she could be medically discharged. Her disability payments could be lowered upon review, Army officials say.

Though Johnson is awaiting a final decision, her injuries were judged to be stable but permanent, and the board recommended that she be discharged from the Army. Johnson plans to appeal the board's recommendation next week, according to Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has been working with the Johnson family.

Lynch, through a spokesman, stressed that she and Johnson are good friends and expressed hope that "Shoshana gets 100 percent" of what she deserves.

Others think race hovers around the edges of this story. They see Johnson's plight as another chapter in the long struggle of blacks trying to get their due from white society.

"There before you is the American dilemma: We are unfair in treatment and view when it comes to people of color," said William Smith, a Vietnam veteran and media adviser for the National Association for Black Veterans.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said he doubted that race was the reason Lynch became a media celebrity. But, he added, with her good looks and compelling story, Lynch looked like a figure from Central Casting at a time when the Pentagon, under heavy criticism over its war plan, desperately needed one.

"It was clear that she was going to become the icon, the star of the miniseries that was the war with Iraq. I think everybody was looking for a symbol of the war with a happy ending," Thompson said. "Jessica Lynch fits the profile of the type of casting American television has done for years."

And the early version of Lynch's story was good — too good. The Washington Post's initial front-page report said Lynch had suffered knife and bullet wounds while ferociously fighting off her attackers.

Pentagon officials later said Lynch was hurt when her Humvee crashed after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Lynch, in an ABC interview to air Tuesday, says her weapon jammed and she never fired a shot. She also criticizes the military for hyping her story.

Donna Brazile said she couldn't help seeing the Johnson-Lynch disparities as a black-white issue. The African-American political strategist, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said she wasn't going to watch Lynch's TV movie.

"Jessica's story is a compelling story, but so is Shoshana's," Brazile said. "My reason for not tuning in is simple: I am tired of the double standard."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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