Female POWs Prove Women Can Endure War’s Hardships
By Dialogo April 05, 2011Women are forgotten, more so the German onesâ€¦many socialist women who are in the services and in URSS during nazism after the 2nd WW. For years were impeded to return to Germany. Their nationality (even if naturalized Russian) could be the reason to be sent to the working fields by force, many of them died, some returned sick and old. But, that was the life for German women, born in a defeated country, occupied, with no right to voice in the history â€¦.
Maj. Rhonda Cornum could see her breath when she awoke on the fourth day of ground fighting during Operation Desert Storm.
It was February 1991, and the flight surgeon combated the chilly Iraqi morning by slipping on her jacket and nursing a few cups of hot coffee.
She was headed out on a routine flight to shuttle passengers, when her UH-60 Black Hawk crew received a call telling them their mission had changed and was now a rescue. That call changed Cornum’s life forever.
A fighter pilot, Air Force Capt. Bill Andrews, had been shot down behind enemy lines and suffered a broken leg. Cornum’s crew was the closest aircraft around.
“Unfortunately we flew right over a big bunker full of weapons and they shot the tail off my helicopter … and they shot me,” said Cornum, now a brigadier general.
Cornum was one of three Soldiers to survive the 140-mile-per-hour crash. She suffered two broken arms, a bullet wound to her shoulder, and a torn knee, only to be dragged from the wreckage and taken into Iraqi captivity.
She was held in a primitive underground jail cell for eight days in what she calls “austere” conditions. She was also sexually molested by an Iraqi Soldier while being transported to the prison, but said being fondled was low on her list of things going wrong that day.
“The molestation didn’t do a thing to me,” she assured. “It is just as irrelevant now as it was then.”
Cornum said she was more surprised than emotionally damaged from the assault — she was dirty, bloodied and badly wounded.
“If it doesn’t increase the likeliness you were going to stay there longer, and it wasn’t excruciating, and it wasn’t life-threatening, then it really didn’t matter,” Cornum explained.
On March 6, 1991, Cornum was released along with 23 other prisoners of war in end-of-war negotiations.
Cornum’s story is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. Few women have served as POWs.
From Florena Budwin, a Civil War woman who disguised herself as a man to join union troops and was held in a confederate prison camp, to the 67 Army nurses who were taken captive by the Japanese in World War II, there have been less than 100 military women held as POWs throughout American history.
As the debate of women serving in combat roles continues, Cornum said she believes the biggest contribution of her career is simply the proof that military women can persevere in tough situations.
While Cornum always felt that she was a strong person, she said her experience as a POW only confirmed her belief that she was resilient.
“It helps put everything else in perspective,” Cornum said of being taken captive. “It made you recognize your strength, when previously it hadn’t really been tested much.”
Cornum completed five more years of medical training upon her release, and while studying to take the board, many of her colleagues said it was the most stressful and worst experience of their life — Cornum disagreed.
“The same reason that I came through the POW experience well is the same reason I came through graduate school well, and the same reason I flipped my car and came out of that well — it’s that I approach every problem very similarly, that no matter how bad it gets, it will always get better.”
The brigadier general is now the director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, the Army’s authority on resiliency training, and in the past 20 years has authored a book, become a urologist and earned a doctorate’s degree in philosophy.
Cornum said she didn’t come up with how to instill resilience, but she did strongly advocate teaching it before something traumatic happens, rather than after.
She likens teaching resiliency to training for a marathon: not everyone who trains finishes the race, but those who do train have a much better chance at succeeding.
“So you ought to train first,” she said.
“I’m evidence that it works,” Cornum pointed out.
Not long after Cornum’s rescue in 1991, the restriction of women flying aircraft in combat was repealed, and in 1993 Congress rescinded female combat exemption laws, opening up a quarter million jobs previously closed to women.
Earlier this past March, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended to the president that DoD eliminate all combat-exclusion policies for women.