Deep inside Iraq on Feb. 27, 1991, the call crackled over the radio of the Black Hawk helicopter carrying Maj. Rhonda Cornum. A voice barked: "Bengal one-five, do you have Doc Cornum on board?" A flight surgeon for the Army's 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion, Cornum was charged with the medical care of more than 300 soldiers in the Gulf War. Now, on the fourth day of the U.S. ground assault, U.S. Air Force Capt. Bill Andrews had been shot down behind enemy lines.
Cornum agreed to take the mission, even though she wasn't responsible for Air Force staff. "I don't think I had enough time" to be afraid, she says. The copter hurtled across the desert floor, flying about 15 feet off the ground-low enough for the crew to wave at American convoys below. Some 30 minutes into the flight, less than 7 miles from Andrews, the Black Hawk began taking Iraqi fire-bright green tracers from unseen bunkers below. Though Black Hawk gunners fired back furiously, it took only about 12 seconds for the Iraqis to blow off the copter's back end. The lumbering machine dived into the sand and flipped. "I remember thinking, 'at least I'm dying doing something honorable,'" says Cornum, then 36. "Splat."
Five of the eight crew members did die. Cornum survived-only to be captured by Iraqi soldiers and held eight days as one of the Gulf War's 23 pows. Few who know the wiry, iron-willed doctor with the golden-green eyes are surprised she survived both ordeals. "I felt sorry for the Iraqis who captured her," says former supervisor Maj. Gen. John Ryneska. But she didn't have an easy time. Cornum broke both arms, shattered her knee, and took a bullet in her right shoulder. An Iraqi guard ******** assaulted her. Repeatedly interrogated, she refused to reveal classified information.
Cornum's stalwart conduct helped reshape the debate on women in the military. The possibility of capture was often cited to keep women out of combat. "This was a validation that if women are in combat and something like this happens," says retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, "they do have the strength, the stamina, the mental courage to meet the demands." After Cornum testified about her experience in 1992, many combat posts were opened to women.
Now a colonel commanding an Army medical unit in Tuzla, Bosnia, Cornum gets frequent letters from military women inspired by her story. Two copies of her 1992 book, She Went to War, sit in her in box, awaiting her autograph. Though reluctant to be cast as an activist for women's military equality, Cornum does not shy away from a controversial position: "I really don't think that opportunities should be gender based."
Cornum certainly didn't join the Army to prove a point about women. "Whether it's being a jockey, a scientist, a pilot, or a commander, I've always identified with the activity first," she says of her achievements. Working on her Cornell University biochemistry doctorate in 1977, Cornum was presenting amino acid research at a conference when an Army officer approached her. "We need someone who does exactly what you do," he said. "The only catch is, you have to join the Army." Needing a job, she signed on. At the requisite Officer Basic Course, she lapped up the Army ethos of physical challenge, discipline, and patriotism. "In three months, I became an Army person–push-ups and sit-ups and running and all that. And I was pretty good at it."
That's putting it mildly. She marched 12 miles with a 35-pound backpack in less than three hours to earn the esteemed Expert Field Medical Badge. She parachuted out of planes to win the Airborne Badge. At medical school, she learned to fly helicopters in a flight surgeon course (and met second husband Kory, an Air Force flight surgeon). After school, Cornum headed to Fort Rucker, Ala., winning the Flight Surgeon of the Year Award in 1990.
"She had a job in a nice, comfortable research environment," recalls research psychologist John Caldwell, who worked with Cornum at Rucker when the war began. "I'll never forget how she got right up and said 'I'm ready to go.'" Her decision was inspired by patriotism, duty, and what she believes is an inherent military impulse: "Nobody's looking for war. But if [it happens], then you would like to put into practice all the stuff you've learned."
Cornum had an hour of doubt. Driving home from Fort Rucker, fear walloped her. She wept all the way to her northern Florida farm. Then, she says, her fright faded. Instead, she felt a sense of challenge: "And those are totally different emotions." Did she ever again doubt her commitment? She eyes her visitor levelly: "No. There is no wuss bone." She did not cry during her Gulf War stint–a point of pride. But "I cry at movies like Old Yeller," she says, tearing up in her Tuzla office. In month five of a seven-month stay on the isolated Bosnia base, she also gets weepy about her 25-year-old daughter, Regan. "Just talk about death and mayhem," says Cornum, wiping her eyes, "and I'll be fine."
Throughout her eight-day captivity, Cornum strove to think positively. She belted out show tunes when held alone in a Baghdad hospital room. The low point came on the first night. A circle of angry Iraqis surrounded her and fellow captive Sgt. Troy Dunlap, holding guns to their heads. "I thought they were going to shoot me," she recalls, "and I was having a hard time thinking anything positive about that."
At a Tuzla desk stacked with empty Diet Coke cans, Cornum continues to accentuate the positive. She encourages staffers to seek out challenges like jump school or publishing research, leads frequent 4-mile runs, and often cheers on the medical unit's softball team (they're 10-2).
Next summer, Cornum heads to the War College in Washington, D.C., one stepping-stone to generalship. If tapped, she would be one of 11 women in the Army to hold the rank. And if experience is any gauge, rank won't prevent her from speaking her mind. At a post-Gulf War panel on women in combat, then Major Cornum shared the podium with a four-star general. He opposed the idea, she recalls, because he couldn't imagine his wife in combat. One woman's leanings shouldn't set policy, Cornum thought. Chuckling at her audacity, she recalls her response: "Well, I can't imagine anybody who would marry him doing it, either."