Persian Gulf War POW shares her story at Mildenhall

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christine Halan
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum visited Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, March 2, 2017, to share her story of resiliency when she was a prisoner of war during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

“When I came to, there were five guys with guns pointing at my head,” Cornum said. “The enemy asked me why I was there, but there was no way I was going to tell him it was for search and rescue. It was pretty obvious what I was doing, so I just said, ‘I had a helicopter wreck.’”

In 1991, Cornum was an Army surgeon deployed to Iraq. Cornum and her team were onboard an Army UH-60A Black Hawk conducting a search and rescue mission for a downed pilot when they were shot down.

“It was obvious after the first volley of guns that it wasn’t going well,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’ Anyone telling you that their life flashes before their eyes, well I’ve got to tell you they’re not flying low-level in a helicopter, because there is no time for your whole life. There’s time for about that one thought and mine was, ‘at least I’m dying doing something honorable.’”

After the crash, Cornum awoke to find herself painfully aware of her injuries while encircled by Iraqi soldiers pointing weapons at her.

“One of the guys reached down and dragged me up, dislocating my already broken arm,” the retired brigadier general said, describing how she’d lost all feeling and movement in her fingers by that point. “All I could do was try to diligently find a way to tolerate this exceptionally unpleasant experience. When my fingers started moving, I was so grateful. It had been hours since I could move them and I realized that if there was blood and I could feel the nerves, then eventually they could probably be fixed.”

Cornum was then dragged by her hair to a bunker, where she was later interrogated.

After hours of questioning she was brought into another area where she was thrown on her knees, surrounded by another group of gunmen. She lifted her head and immediately saw one of her crewmembers.

“I was never so happy to see another soul in my life, because I thought I was the only survivor,” she said. “Unfortunately my euphoria didn’t last long. … Two of the Iraqis had handguns, which they held to the back of our heads. My immediate thought was, ‘oh my goodness, they’re going to execute us right here.’

My next thought was, ‘How inefficient. Why wouldn’t they have just done it when they found me? Why haul me all the way over here?’”

Sure she was going to die, Cornum tried to find the positivity in the situation.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve really had a great life – I’ve done almost all of what I wanted to do and I’ve accomplished more things than many people do who live twice as long as me.”

As she waited for her life to end, the gun clicked, but there was no bullet. The Iraqis stood her back up and took her to another room for more interrogation.

“That really puts things in perspective; whatever else happens to you after that, the thought of someone yelling isn’t that bad,” Cornum said.

She and several other POWs were blindfolded and transported to several locations throughout Iraq. It was then that she finally found the pilot her team initially set out to find. Eventually, all were released to the Red Cross to return home.

Once she returned home, she realized nothing had really changed her outlook of how she should be functioning in her everyday life.

“I guess people thought what I had gone through had changed my plans,” she said. “But I came back and life went on. I didn’t find that this was an inconvenient blip – it wasn’t like I was going to let it be. I didn’t think too much more about it.”

With being so positive about any road block that came her way, she couldn’t understand how anyone could not make it through the hardship she went through.

Most people expected her to speak about post-traumatic stress issues, but instead she spoke optimistically about her experience.

“Many people asked me how I made it. The follow-on statement I got from others after I finished talking would be ‘I don’t think I would’ve made it.’ When I thought about that, I was horrified. I would hate to go through my life thinking I wouldn’t be able to deal with any problems I encountered,” Cornum said.

Once she had the opportunity, she then sought to establish the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which teaches people how to deal with adversities more effectively.

“I felt obligated to take advantage of (creating the program). I wouldn’t want people to go through life like that, and certainly not those in the military,” she said.

She came up with the program by subdividing different core competencies, which people should be proficient in to be resilient, including emotional, social, family, spiritual and physical.

A few years later the Air Force implemented the Comprehensive Airman Fitness program.

When reflecting on the situation she had been through, Cornum realized she had become a stronger person from having to deal with her experience of being a POW.

“Bad things happen, so my recommendation is to use them positively,” she said. “You don’t want to get to the end and think that you wish you had done nothing.”