Physically a prisoner, mentally a warrior

  • Published
  • By Airman Seth Haddix
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

The soldier woke hours after the crash, dazed, in an out-of-body experience. She saw her own body covered by various parts of a UH-60 Black Hawk. She saw what she believed to be her death.

“Wow, I’m dead,” she thought to herself. “I never thought about what it would be like to be dead.”

She noticed a flame creeping towards her still body.

“I can’t be certain I am dead,” she thought. “And if I’m not, I won’t let this fire kill me.”

Determined to give her life another chance, she inched out from under the wreckage using only one limb. She looked up to see five gun barrels pointing at her forehead.

“Well, I’m not dead,” she thought optimistically. “Being a prisoner of war is an awful situation, but it could be worse. I could be dead.”

Being carried away by the Iraqi soldiers, she was thinking of how she could see this in a positive light. Then her blistered finger twitched. Her fingers were bent the wrong way and oddly shaped but she was able to move them, meaning they were able to be fixed. Out of all the emotions she could possibly experience, she felt gratitude. She was grateful her arms were still attached to her body. She decided to look toward the light in a dark situation. Her grandfather’s words sang in her head: “There are worse things than dying, there’s living with dishonor.”

“The most important part of resiliency is optimistic thinking,” said retired Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum as she remembered the day she was captured. “Optimism is recognizing there is always something you can do to resolve a situation.”

Cornum served as a flight surgeon for the second of the 229th Attack Helicopter Battalion and deployed in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. Sent on a search and rescue mission, her crew’s helicopter crashed.

Being one of three survivors, she was captured and held captive by the Iraqi military. She sustained multiple injuries and anticipated death numerous times but her resiliency and mental strength helped her survive and overcome the situation.

“I felt the gun press against the back of my head,” said Cornum. “I had a few minutes to review my life, and I realized that my life was pretty good. I had a great family, a great career, jumped horses and raised dogs. I got to do the things I loved and things most people haven’t done. My last thought was ‘At least it won't hurt.’ The gun clicked. I wasn’t dead.”

Cornum was again grateful to be able to hold on to her life after the mock execution. The incident helped her realize the blessings she has been given.

Cornum spent the next couple days in a jail cell in pain. She looked forward toward optimism and decided she would not let this situation defeat her. She was in control of her attitude and her mind.

“I had to use the restroom,” said Cornum. “I am a doctor, so I could diagnose myself. The body saves the heart and brain before the kidney, so if I have enough blood in my body to support my kidney, I have enough to save my heart and brain. Again, something to be grateful for.”

Cornum spent eight days in captivity until she was released to the U.S. Army. She felt this situation had a positive influence on her life. Her resiliency pushed her through the fear and anxiety and her toughness allowed her to grow from the situation.

“I used to get asked if I was different,” said Cornum. “I eventually realized they were wondering if I was damaged and what symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder I had. I was different. I was better. I was a better doctor, wife, mother, commander and I felt stronger. I grew from it.”

Cornum viewed her captivity as an obstacle she passed.

“I’ve heard many times over the years, ‘how did you make it?’,” said Cornum. “I thought that was an odd question. How would I not make it? I problem solved. Some would tell me, ‘I don’t think I would make it.’ To hear that from others is depressing. I would hate to go through my life believing if I come across a challenge, I will not be able to overcome it.”

Cornum strives to inspire others to understand resiliency and how to handle the obstacles they face.

“Everybody has potential to become stronger mentally and emotionally,” said Cornum. “It takes work, but it is possible. Pain is inevitable, but is possible to overcome.”

Cornum believes past any obstacle everyone has their own purpose to discover.

“What you are doing is important,” said Cornum. “Finding meaning and purpose is what helps you be resilient. Recognize your life has a true purpose.”

Cornum is an example of how resiliency stems from mentality. Being resilient isn’t avoiding conflict, but getting up and overcoming it.

The pain on her body was insufferable. A horrific chain of events unfolded, but still, her conscience would not give in.

“Nobody’s ever died from pain” is the thought she lives by.

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