By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman, 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 12, 2013
KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
It's 1991 and the Persian Gulf War has just ended, but not before the Black Hawk helicopter carrying Rhonda Cornum, a major at the time, is shot down during a search and rescue mission. Cornum, suffering a gunshot wound and two broken arms, was then captured and made a prisoner of war along with the other two survivors of the crash.
This horrific story is familiar to the retired Army general and to her husband, Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum, 81st Medical Group commander, as they have both retold it many times. Rhonda has been in magazines, on television and even co-wrote a book about her experience.
Rhonda Cornum's story is that of timeless resiliency.
"I really believe that the glass is half full, but I got tired of that analogy," said Rhonda during a special presentation of her POW experience at Keesler Medical Center Dec. 5. "So, I decided to use this: 'At any given time, the world is always half light and half dark, and it's your choice to concentrate on what is light.'"
Focusing on the positive isn't an easy task when faced with certain death, said Rhonda. But, she retells her capture and captivity as pragmatically and lightheartedly as possible.
"If anyone ever tells you your whole life flashes before your eyes, they must have started up a lot higher than I did," Rhonda said about her helicopter going down. "I do remember thinking, one, that I was going to die, and secondly, at least I was going to die doing something honorable."
The Gulf War was waged by a 34-member coalition force authorized by the United Nations and led by the United States against Iraq in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Rhonda served as a flight surgeon during the war, often being required to make rescue missions via helicopter, she said.
Her team had been on its way to recover a downed F-16 fighter on the day of the crash, which also happened to be the last day of the war. On the way to rescue the downed pilot, the Black Hawk and its two escorts came under fire. The escorts managed to escape, but the rescue team was shot down, killing five of the crew.
"When I came to, I knew I was either going to be a prisoner or, again, I was going to be dead," Rhonda said. "There is no positive spin to being held a prisoner--I do not recommend it. But, it was better than the alternative, so there was no point in dwelling on it. You're in it anyway."
This idea is the heart of her resiliency.
Kory explains that Rhonda's resilient spirit is nothing new; that she has been that way since they met more than 30 years ago at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
"She was very similar to now, positive and busy," said Kory. "She's always getting things done."
They married, had one child, and were later deployed simultaneously to the Persian Gulf where they served on opposite fronts of the battlefield, Rhonda in the Army and Kory in the Air Force.
Rhonda and her fellow captives were held for nine days until they were rescued by the Red Cross, exchanged for Iraqi prisoners. Upon her release, Kory was lucky enough to be united with her while she was in the hospital, he said.
It was an unconventional situation, and Kory had a hard time getting to see his wife at first. He almost had to wait until they returned home, he said.
"I saw her within two minutes of being in the hospital and I was with her the rest of the time," said Kory. "She was all broken, but fine. She was like she always is: amazingly resilient."
"After her recovery, we were on the road all the time," Kory continued. "Only two women were POWs during the entire conflict, so it was a popular story. She was on television a lot, and there were always requests for her to speak. It was a big deal."
Her story still inspires people today.
Peggy Lewis, 81st MDG, said she heard Rhonda speak three years ago and came again to this year's presentation for the contagious positivity.
"She is one in a million," said Lewis. "To be a female doctor, in the military, in that particular specialty, and to experience everything she has--she's a role model."
But, Rhonda's rarity is made down-to-earth by her own sensibility. She downplays the extremity of her captivity while recounting her story, answering matter-of-factly. When asked about her mistreatment during captivity, including a sexual assault incident, she explained that a fellow captive had it much worse in his torture by electricity.
Her story offers a learning opportunity for all that hear it without having to endure the hardship of war.
"This thing happened anyway," Rhonda said in regard to her captivity. "Adverse things happen to everyone. The key is figuring out how to find something good about it or make it into something you can use. My story isn't about how to deploy in 2013--it's about how to think when confronted with a challenge, any challenge."