What You Can Learn From a Woman POW About Grit and Resilience

Shannon H. Polson

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Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum

Ifirst saw Dr. Rhonda Cornum speak at a Triangle Securities Conference in the North Carolina Research Triangle Park while I was still a cadet in 1993. I vividly recall a general officer at the conference expressing opposition to women serving in the Army, based on the assumption that women’s lives were more important than men’s beause of their capacity for childbearing. Dr. Cornum spoke evenly, challenging that assumption and its implications. She had a daughter. She was also an Army officer and flight surgeon. What danger she did or did not face was a decision that was hers to make.

I was awed by her strength.

Two years earlier, on February 27, 1991, Major Rhonda Cornum was in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter at refuel prepared for a passenger shuttle when the Blackhawk pilots got a call to change mission. An F-16 had been shot down, and the downed pilot was in radio contact but had a broken leg. The Blackhawk launched for the new mission. They flew fast and low across the desert, “so low that the pilot of our helicopter had to pull up to fly over the convoy of American trucks streaming through Iraq,” she writes in her book She Went to War. Fast and low is standard mission profile for an Army helicopter, easy prey to anti-aircraft fire.

Just 45 seconds after crossing over the American convoy, Cornum recalls green tracers streaking up from the ground “as if we were a lawn mower that had run over a beehive, and the bees were coming up to sting.” The soldiers on the door guns returned fire, and one of the shell casings from the machine gun hit Cornum in the face as she lay on the floor, anticipating another stray round to rip through the floor from below at any moment.

Then, “I felt something big hit the aircraft,” she writes. “The engine strained and the fuselage shook and shimmied.”

Cornum heard the pilot yell “We’re going in!” She remembers having time to grab on to the aircraft, and wondering if it was the end. Then everything went dark.

NOBODY’S EVER DIED FROM PAIN

The helicopter crashed at 140 knots onto the desert floor. Cornum remembers it was daytime when they crashed, and when she came to it was dark. She returned to consciousness and did not think she could move. In the distance, she saw a fire. Aware of the dangers of post-crash fires, she pushed aside the wreckage to find her way out of the mangled fuselage. She later remembers that her first thought was “Nobody’s ever died from pain.”

Cornum was a flight surgeon for the 229th Aviation Regiment, and held a PhD in biochemistry and nutrition from Cornell University. She had been recruited into the Army to work in a research facility in San Francisco.

“I was the least likely person,” Cornum says. “I really joined because I wanted to do research and I didn’t want to teach.” Once onboard, she realized she liked the Army.

“I liked the camaraderie, I liked the mission focus,” she tells Dr. Linda Tucker on the podcast Challenge Your Thinking.

She didn’t expect to deploy.