When U.S. Army flight surgeon Rhonda Cornum became one of two American service-women taken prisoner in the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq, her story of resilience helped convince Americans that female soldiers could serve in expanded roles in wartime. Her memoir about the conflict and her eight days in captivity, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, was published in 1992. When the attention the war brought her faded, Cornum continued her military career, training as a urologist and serving in Bosnia. In 2003, during the second war between the United States and Iraq, Cornum attracted media attention again as the first female commander of the military hospital in Germany that treated many soldiers wounded in Iraq.
She first got the attention of the press in 1987, when she was selected as a finalist for becoming an astronaut. At the time, she was a captain in the Army, working at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center as an intern and living on a horse farm in Olney, Maryland. She was not selected, but went on instead to serve as a flight surgeon at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
In 1990, when the United States was preparing to go to war to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Cornum agreed to go to the Persian Gulf as a flight surgeon with the 101st Airborne Division. The war began in January of 1991, followed by a ground assault in February. During a failed attempt to rescue a fighter pilot with a broken leg, Cornum’s helicopter was shot down over Iraq. As the copter fell, “I remember thinking, ‘at least I’m dying doing something honorable, ‘” Cornum told Joellen Perry for a special “heroes” issue of U.S. News and World Report. “We crashed at 140 miles per hour—there’s no way I should have survived that crash. But then I looked up and I saw five Iraqi guys with their rifles pointed at me, ” she recalled to Adam Ramirez of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. “I knew I wasn’t dead.”
Five of the eight crew members died in the crash. Cornum had a bullet lodged in her shoulder, both her arms were broken, and she could not stand on her knee because of a blown ligament. The Iraqi soldiers pulled her out of the copter by one of her broken arms, threw her into a circle with another survivor, and threatened to shoot them, but did not. Instead, they drove them to a prison in the Iraqi city of Basra. During the drive, an Iraqi solider molested Cornum. She was unable to fight him off because of her broken arms. Held prisoner for eight days, Cornum was interrogated but did not reveal anything classified. Other Iraqi soldiers were more respectful, helping her take off her flight suit and giving her a gown to wear.
Cornum was released March 5, 1991, a week after the war ended. She and other prisoners were flown to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf greeted them. Cornum had her arms in slings. The press paid special attention to Cornum and Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, the other U.S. servicewoman taken prisoner by the Iraqis. Cornum’s memoir, She Went to War, was published a year later. It told the story of her time as a prisoner of war. Barton Gellman, a Washington Post writer, praised the book, which begins with her helicopter flying over the desert in Iraq. “From its first sentence, it is vivid and concrete, ” he wrote. Cornum, he added, “displays a resourcefulness and courage that would do credit to any soldier.” The New York Times named it as one of the most notable books of 1992.
Washington Post profiler Henry Allen described her this way: “She has green eyes, brown hair and a distaste for being photographed from the left because of the narrow, high-bridged nose she has broken twice riding horses. She is a licensed steeple-chase jockey. She used to fox-hunt when she was a medical student in Washington…. She wore a big wristwatch with a calculator and a compass on it. Aviators are known for wearing big wristwatches. She has flown everything from helicopters to F-15s, and she once built her own plane.” Cornum, Allen noted, stayed out of the debate about the role of servicewomen in the military and the sexual harassment scandals, such as the Navy’s Tailhook incident, that seemed part of an early-1990s backlash against military women. “She has mastered neither the confessional anguish nor the defiant boasting of the daytime talk shows and congressional hearings where our nation hammers out its moral certitudes of the moment, ” Allen noted.
Others may have seen her experience as an example of why women should be protected from combat’s front lines, but Cornum did not. In June of 1992, Cornum made headlines when she revealed in advance of her book’s publication that she had been molested while in Iraqi custody. She said she did not want to make light of sexual assault, but she did not seem to consider it the worst part of her imprisonment. “Since everything that happens to you as a prisoner of war is non-consensual, then the fact that one thing they did was non-consensual is not very relevant, ” she told the Washington Post ‘s Allen. “So then you have to organize the bad things that can happen to you in some other hierarchy. My hierarchy was, is it going to make me stay here longer, is it life-threatening, is it disabling or is it excruciating. If it’s none of those things, then it took on a fairly low level of significance.”
Though she never identified with the feminist movement, Cornum insisted that women in the military should be judged on their own talents, and she dismissed those who would use her experience as an argument for keeping women out of jobs on the front lines. “Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted. Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every 10 years in a war overseas? It’s ridiculous, ” she told Cathy Booth Thomas of Time. “Clearly it’s an emotional argument they use … because they can’t think of a rational one.”
When defense secretary Les Aspin opened many new military roles to women in April of 1993, the service of women such as Cornum in the Gulf War was credited with proving that women could serve capably in important roles and brave the dangers of war. Cornum’s conduct as a prisoner “was a validation that if women are in combat and something like this happensthey do have the strength, the stamina, the mental courage to meet the demands, ” retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught told Perry of U.S. News and World Report.
Though most former prisoners of war end up leaving the military, Cornum stayed. She trained in urology surgery and became staff urologist at an Army medical center. By 2001, she had been promoted from major to colonel and was commanding a medical unit in Tuzla, Bosnia. She was well-respected by her staff there, in part because most members of the Army know her story, Maj. Richard Meaney, the hospital’s executive officer, told Ramirez of Stars and Stripes. “But even if she didn’t have that history, she’s still a top physician and a fantastic commander, ” Meaney said.
In 2003, when the second Iraq war began, Cornum was stationed at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. and studying at the National War College there. As American soldiers, including women, were taken prisoner, reporters spoke to Cornum again about her experience 12 years earlier. That summer, Cornum graduated from the War College—often considered a step toward higher positions in the military—and became commander of the Army’s Landstuhl military hospital in Germany, its largest hospital outside the United States, with more than 1, 800 staff members. She was the first woman to hold the position. Landstuhl often treated soldiers injured in Iraq, so her new position put her back in the spotlight, talking to reporters and conducting press conferences. She took over a few months after the invasion of Iraq, just before an insurgency broke out, prolonging the war. “There were some days when the workload was light, ” Rhonda recalled to Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader after leaving the position. “But you really couldn’t relax because you knew that the next day you might be completely overwhelmed.” When 16 soldiers were sent to Landstuhl that November after their Chinook helicopter was attacked, Cornum compared their experience to her wartime crash for Mark Landler of the New York Times. “At least we had the ability to shoot back, ” she said. “The guys in the Chinook just had to sit there and watch what was happening to them. That must have been the hardest part.”
Good Housekeeping ‘s Allen noted that Cornum sometimes still worked as a doctor when many wounded soliders arrived at Landstuhl at once. After the battles in Fallujah, Iraq, in April of 2004, Cornum admitted patients and assisted in the operating room. “When you first meet her, you might say, ‘Wow, she’s kind of a tough bird, ‘” Col. Steven Older, Landstuhl’s chief medical officer, told Allen. “But under that is a soft, compassionate person. She’s a very caring physician.” Patients often knew about her experience in the first Gulf War, since her memoir was available in the hospital store. She often consoled patients and their families. “Don’t be discouraged, ” she told wounded soldiers, according to Allen. “It’s going to take you a long time, but you’re going to come back if you want to.”
Cornum and her husband, Kory, an Air Force colonel and orthopedist, spent several years at the same posts. He was stationed at Fort McNair while she studied at the War College, and he was also stationed at Landstuhl while she commanded it; he coordinated a volunteer doctor program that brought in neurosurgeons from the United States to compensate for a shortage of military neurosurgeons. In June of 2005, the Cornums left Germany for the 320-acre horse farm they bought in 1998 in Kentucky, to take a break before their next assignment. Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leaderfound them resting and taking calves to market. Cornum was scheduled to report to a new assignment in Atlanta in July of 2005. Though press reports had speculated she might eventually become a general, Cornum said she might retire to the farm if their daughter, Regan, who looks after it while Cornum and her husband are on active duty, were to go to veterinary school.
Retired United States Army Officer
Director, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, Army Staff
Director, Health Strategy for TechWerks
Letterman Institute of Research, Presidio
Commander, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center – 2003-2005
Command Surgeon, United States Army Forces Command
US Army Assistant Surgeon General for Force Protection
Medical Task Force Commander, Bosnia – 2001
Commander, Support Hospital, Ft. Bragg – 2000
Staff Urologist, Eisenhower Army Medical Center – 1998
Flight Surgeon, 229th Attack “Black Hawk” Helicopter Regiment – 1990
General Surgery Intern, Walter Reed Army Medical Center – 1986-1987
Doctorate in Biochemistry and Nutrition, Cornell University – 1978
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, M.D., Bethesda, MD – 1986
National War College – 2003 (President of her Class)
Air Command and Staff College – 1992
Born – 31 October 1954
Hometown – Dayton, OH
Spouse – Colonel and Dr. Kory Cornum, USAF
Legion of Merit
Distinguished Flying Cross
Meritorious Service Medal
POW Medal and Purple Heart
US Army Ten Outstanding Young American Award