Former POW uses her past experiences to help soldiers returning from war zones

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, discusses the program with Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, during a recent visit to Fort Jackson, S.C.


By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 3, 2010

RELATED STORY: Army trains soldiers on how to be mentally, emotionally tough

No one can tell Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum that she doesn’t know what combat trauma’s like.

She is, after all, one of the two female soldiers held as a prisoner in the Persian Gulf War. She was captured after her medevac Black Hawk came under fire and went down, slamming into the desert at 140 mph.

Five soldiers died in the crash. Cornum, then a flight surgeon, was among three survivors.

“Pinned under the wreckage, she dug her way out with two broken arms, a broken finger, a gunshot wound, torn knee ligaments, an eye glued shut with blood, and other injuries,” Time magazine reported.

Then she saw five Iraqi soldiers pointing their rifles at her.

Cornum was held for about eight days in early 1991, frequently blindfolded and moved, kept in a cell and sexually molested before her release.

“It wasn’t an all-good week,” she said dryly in a recent phone interview.

Despite the ordeal, Cornum, who grew up in upstate New York and was once a finalist to become an astronaut, never experienced post-traumatic stress reactions.

No nightmares, no flashbacks, no trouble sleeping, she said.

She stayed on duty. She wrote a book. She returned to school to become a urologist, a medical specialty few women choose. And she was promoted to general officer.

Now, as director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, Cornum is in charge of an effort to teach soldiers how to be more emotionally resilient and so, it’s hoped, less prone to depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide. How to be, in essence, more like her.

“I always say that people start off with a wide spectrum of resilience,” Cornum said. “I had a lot, just because of good fortune or good upbringing or good neonatal nutrition — who knows?

“I’ve always been this way. … But we are talking about thinking skills, learned optimism. That is trainable, and that’s been proven.”

When the helicopter was going down, Cornum said, she felt certain she was going to die. But she said she thought, “At least I’m dying doing something honorable.”

After her capture, she didn’t grow despondent.

“I felt I’d just had a mission change,” she said. “My mission now was to stay alive.”

Cornum, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Cornell University in addition to her medical degree, didn’t get medical attention for several days during her captivity. But she appreciated the care she finally received.

“The guy that took care of me was a very good physician, actually,” she said.

And although much was made of her sexual molestation after her release, to Cornum, it was “much ado about less.”

It happened as she was riding in the back of an Iraqi truck, shortly after her capture. An Iraqi soldier unzipped her flight suit, stuck his hand in and groped her.

Her first reaction, she said, was surprise.

“I thought, ‘Well, how bizarre!’ Cornum told the Public Broadcasting Service program “Frontline.” She was battered and blood-soaked and not at all enticing, she said, “And I’m thinking, ‘How can he possibly want to do this?’ ”

Did nothing bother her?

“They stole my wedding ring,” she said.

And she was bored much of the time. But she felt pretty sure things would work out.

“I felt confident that the Army was going to come and get me, or they were going to kill a lot of people trying,” she said. “And that was sufficiently comforting.”

After her return to the U.S., Cornum wrote a book. “She Went To War: The Rhonda Cornum Story,” was a critical success, named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992.

That was just one of the ways Cornum not only survived a terrible ordeal but also overcame it.

“I think, ‘Yes, I know this horrible thing happened, but I’m a better doctor — I will be more empathetic because I have been injured and afraid,” she said. “I think, ‘I’m a better spouse and a better kid and a better parent — I’ll never take them for granted.’ ”

Cornum said she’s convinced that the new Army-wide psychological training will help other soldiers improve their outlooks and outcomes. Then again, she is, as she puts it, “an indefatigable optimist.”

Maj. Rhonda Lee Cornum is reunited with a loved one upon her return to the United States.

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