Retired Brig. Gen. gives inspirational POW Convocation talk
By BETH ALSTON
AMERICUS — National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Recognition Day was Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. In honor of that day, the National Park Service, the Friends of Andersonville, and Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) hosted the 2015 National POW/MIA Convocation at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Convocation Hall Auditorium on the campus of GSW.
This year’s featured speaker was Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, U.S. Army (retired). Brig. Gen. Cornum, then Maj. Cornum, was a flight surgeon with the 229th Attack Helicopter Battalion when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down on Feb. 27, 1991, during a search and rescue operation. She suffered from numerous injuries including two broken arms and a gunshot wound in her shoulder; five of the eight crew members died in the crash. She and the other survivors were taken prisoner and held by Iraqi forces for eight days. On March 6, 1991, Cornum and 23 other prisoners of war were released in end-of-war negotiations. Cornum detailed her experiences in her memoir “She Went To War: The Rhonda Cornum Story”, published in 1992.
Cornum’s flight suit is on display in the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville National Historic Site. After captivity, she continued a successful Army career, including a period as commander of the 28th CSH, in Bosnia, and of the Landstuhl RMC in Germany. She was also the director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. She serves on the VA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Former POWs.
Cornum retired from the military in 2012 and now divides her time between serving on boards, humanitarian efforts on behalf of soldiers and their families, and raising and handling her beloved dogs. She also raises thoroughbred horses.
A slightly built, petite woman, Cornum displays a resilience and strength which most certainly helped get her through her week-long captivity.
Cornum started by saying that “being a prisoner of war is a bad thing,” but “being a prisoner of war is unlike any other adverse experience you’ll ever face.”
She told the students in attendance that something bad happens to everybody at some time in their life, ranging from bad grades to a breakup with a significant other or having your dog get run over.
“It isn’t whether something bad will happen,” she said, “It’s important what you do when something bad happens.”
She said the difference in POWs who go through the experience and do very well is what they do with the experience.
“It’s all about Plan B,” she said.
Cornum related her story to a spellbound audience.
She was a flight surgeon at Fort Rucker, Ala., when the war started in August 1990. They all waited to rotate over for duty. On Feb. 27, 1991, she was in a helicopter with two pilots and all her medical “stuff” when they learned an F-16 had been shot down. The pilot bailed out and was on the ground with a broken leg. Cornum and her crew went to rescue him. It seemed routine. When they got within a kilometer of the wounded pilot, “everything went to crap.”
The wounded pilot had ejected into the middle of an enemy ammunitions supply area. Cornum’s chopper went under fire. The Black Hawk crashed, killing five of the eight people on board.
She said she had been knocked unconscious in the crash and came to hours later in the dark. She first thought she was dead but she wanted to try to get away from the wreckage in case of fire. She managed to get out from under the pieces of the helicopter and realized she couldn’t stand or roll over.
After trying again, she looked up to see five guys with guns pointing at her head. “My first thought was, ‘hmmm, not dead.’ … It’s not like there was a third option that I would wake up and not be captured.” She said her first emotion was gratitude that she had survived the crash, but both her arms were broken and she discovered she had been shot in the shoulder. She realized she couldn’t move and couldn’t feel her fingers. She was afraid that if she removed the velcro from her sleeves that her arms would fall out. Eventually her fingers started working and she believed they could be fixed.
“It does no good to feel bad about something that’s happened,” she said, “it’s already happened.”
She was taken to one enemy officer and then to another. They dragged her out a bunker and threw her into a group of other soldiers. She said she landed on her face because her arms were broken, but she looked up and saw one of her crew. “I was never happier to see anybody,” she said, “because at that point I thought was the only survivor.”
She said it made a huge difference to her that she wasn’t there alone. Her euphoria was short-lived as two Iraqi soldiers drew their handguns and put them at the back of her head and that of her comrade.
She thought they were about to be executed but figured, since they had been hauled in, maybe the Iraqis wanted information.
“I’m diligently wracking my brain for something positive to come up with and the only thing I could come up with was that, when I was dead, it would be over,” she said. But that didn’t happen. They were taken to a prison at Basra and later to a prison in Baghdad. She was sent to a military hospital in Baghdad. The third survivor of the wreck later showed up and was more injured than she. She described him as the chief of orthopedics, a brilliant surgeon who had been educated in the U.K.
The following day she was put to sleep so they could put casts on her arms. Later, they were taken back to downtown Baghdad in blindfolds, but she said she could see a lot of other prisoners who looked like her. After another day there, they were loaded again on a bus and taken to a hotel. There they were told the war had ended and they would be exchanged for Iraqi POWs. They had lights and hot water. They didn’t take the private rooms offered, but preferred to stay together in three rooms. “We had a adult slumber party,” she said. “We had 26 people circulating through the rooms.” She said the opportunity to talk about and share their experiences was therapeutic.
Days later, they were taken to the Baghdad airport where the exchange was made. Cornum and her fellow POWs were flown to Riyad, Saudi Arabia, and later to a hospital ship where they spent a few days being treated and debriefed.
Eventually they flew back to the states. The only time she cried, she said, during the entire experience was when she saw her daughter, “because even on my most optimistic day, there was a chance I’d never see her again.”
After further surgeries, she went back to work and didn’t think about it much anymore.
“Apparently, other people did think about it,” she said. “They wanted to know what I thought about the experience, what I thought about the war, what I thought about women in combat, things they had strong feelings about but I’d never really thought about before.”
When she got to think about Plan B was when she testified before the Senate about women in combat and women flying combat aircraft and changing laws that allowed greater opportunities for everyone. “That would never have happened if I had not got shot down …”
They were finally got to meet the pilot they first had tried to rescue and call came back together.
“So taking advantage of what happens, as opposed to grieving about what didn’t happen is the key to being successful,” she said. “If something bad happens, it’s OK to grieve. You are always allowed to grieve … Once you’ve done that, it’s time to do something else also,” and find way to take advantage of what happened to you.