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THEN & NOW: Female POW Reveals Her Secret of Survival

Rhonda Cornum was shot down during the Gulf War. This is her story.

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Left: Rhonda Cornum after her release. Right: Cornum recently photographed on her farm.
Left: U.S. Army; Right: Maddie McGarvey

I was coming out of graduate school with a PhD in biochemistry, and I wanted a research job. I was interested in working for government services, and the only job I could find was at a fish nutrition lab, where I would be the only female, the youngest person (I was 23) and also the boss.

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That sounded like a recipe for failure. Then one day an Army recruiter contacted me and said, “We need somebody to do the kind of research that you do. The only catch is, you have to join the Army.”

This was 1978. I had never considered joining the Army. I didn’t know anybody in the Army. But I went and saw the lab in San Francisco where I would be working, and it was beautiful. They had plenty of money. I wouldn’t have to teach. So, I joined.

It was an easy transition, but after four years, I realized that I was making about half as much as the physicians surrounding me. I was a single mother by this time. I looked at my choices and decided to go to the military medical school in Bethesda, Maryland. There I met Kory Cornum, my husband. I became a flight surgeon at Fort Rucker in Alabama, and he became a flight surgeon at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

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On Aug. 2, 1990, I watched the tanks roll into Kuwait on television—the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces. Soon after, a commander of an Apache battalion asked me if I would accompany his unit to Iraq. I decided that I had to go. I thought, You’re really going to war, Rhonda. I remember thinking that I could die. What came to mind was something my grandfather once told me. He was a veteran of World War II. He said, “Rhonda, there are worse things than dying. There is living with dishonor.” If I didn’t go to war, I would have to live with dishonor for the rest of my life.

On Feb. 27, 1991, I was aboard a Black Hawk helicopter on a search and rescue mission over southern Iraq. An F-16 pilot had ejected from his plane, and we were told he was alive and talking on his radio. We went to get him, but we did not have intel on what was going on where we were headed. We just had coordinates. In fact, we were headed into the biggest ammunition supply point in southern Iraq.

We got shot down. I was shot in the back. I broke both my arms. I had a transected anterior cruciate ligament in my right leg. I lost a lot of blood. I ended up a prisoner of war. I was very fortunate to have survived the wreck, as five guys from my aircraft did not. If you’re going to get shot down, it’s best to do it on the last day of the war. It was called off on Feb. 28, and after eight days in captivity, I was repatriated.

It took a few surgeries to heal me up. But at that point, the fact that I had been a prisoner of war, that I was a woman, that I had been on the front lines, I had a lot of credibility to speak out about equal opportunity for including women in combat. I realized that people would listen to me, and I had a lot to say. I got asked by congressional panels and the media to speak about my experiences. Later, I was asked to develop a psychological fitness training program for the Army.

The reason I fared well as a wounded prisoner of war was because I was mentally prepared. We have a bunch of people serving our country who are brave and patriotic but not always psychologically robust. They don’t always have good coping skills. If we can instill those things—optimism, good coping and communication skills—before something bad happens, they will be less likely to succumb to that negative event.

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When I was a child, I read a book that had the most remarkable quote in it. It went something like this: “The great men in history are those who can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.” I internalized that, and I have been living my life by those words, ever since.

— As told to A.J. Baime

Rhonda Cornum, 67, is a surgeon and health care executive. She is the author, with Peter Copeland, of She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story and lives in North Middletown, Kentucky. A version of this story appears in a Celebrating Veterans feature in the October issue of the AARP Bulletin.

Do you have a potential story that might make a THEN & NOW article in AARP Veteran Report? If so, please contact our editors here.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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