General's life embodies resiliency, optimism
October 20, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS McCHORD, Wash. -- The life of Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, embodies what it takes both mentally and physically to remain resilient and optimistic during traumatic times.
"We need to build psychological resilience and psychological fitness in the same way we need to build physical fitness," said Cornum, the only woman ex-prisoner of war still serving in the active duty Army.
Cornum visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord Sept. 2011 to kick off a 10-day CSF Master Resilience Trainers course. The CSF program focuses on the ability to bounce back from stress or trauma, something she utilized after her experience in the Gulf War.
It was months before the ground war started against Iraq in 1991 and Maj. "Rambo" Rhonda Cornum, as she was once known, wanted to do what she had been trained to do: save lives. As the 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion flight surgeon, she was in charge of the medics and the care of 300 Soldiers.
Duty, honor, country and loyalty were the big things in her life that kept her from hesitating when asked if she wanted to deploy, that and her daughter Regan would have thought she was a wimp if she didn't, she said.
"I honestly believed that more people would come back alive if I went," said Cornum, who received her M.D. from the military's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
Cornum flew over the Iraqi desert with her crew in a Black Hawk helicopter Feb. 27, during the fourth day of the U.S. ground assault. They were transporting Soldiers when they were alerted that Capt. Bill Andrews, an Air Force F-16 pilot, was shot down behind enemy lines. The crew embarked on a search and rescue mission to save Andrews, who was stranded on the desert floor with a broken leg.
Before they could reach Andrew's location, their helicopter was assaulted by enemy fire.
"I remember having time to hold on, knowing we were going to crash," said Cornum, who tried making her 110-pound, 5-foot, 5-inch frame smaller before the bird dove into the sand. "I was thinking, I wonder if this is it, is this the end? What will it be like? I don't even remember being scared; it was more like curiosity."
Cornum was trapped beneath the wreckage upon impact and her helicopter lay crippled in the sand. With no other crewmembers in sight, she struggled to dig herself out of the debris.
"I wasn't totally convinced that I was alive, but if I was, there was no way I was going to die in a post-crash fire," said Cornum.
It was that determination and tenacity that gave her the strength to survive. Qualities engrained in her from winning dog shows without any formal training, to matching her collegiate accomplishments with the Expert Field Medical Badge, and from graduating Airborne school and other prestigious military schools. Her life accomplishments exemplify her endless drive and the refusal to quit.
"If I had not been an optimistic person, I would have given up," said Cornum.
The qualities instilled in her throughout her life provided the confidence to suppress fear when five Iraqi soldiers wielding AK-47s surrounded her. They yanked her from the ground and took her into captivity, where she was held prisoner for eight days. Five of her eight crewmembers were killed in the crash. Cornum's 1992 memoir "She Went to War" is dedicated to her five comrades who gave their lives trying to rescue a fellow aviator.
Cornum was repeatedly questioned about her mission, but never revealed any classified information, not even with a rifle to the back of her head.
"I could feel the cold metal barrel poking me in the back of the neck," said Cornum. "I waited for the click of metal and the explosion."
It never came and the enemy finally transferred her to a Baghdad hospital for examination and treatment for two broken arms, a shattered knee, and a gunshot wound to her shoulder.
"I knew being a prisoner would be hard, but it was better than being dead," said Cornum.
She never wept or lost faith while alone and locked in her room, but instead did what she likes to do when she gets the chance to be alone: sing. Louder and louder she sang her favorite rock songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, and Cat Stevens, ending with her favorite, "The Wind Beneath my Wings."
"Where ever you are, you make it as good as you can make it, because there's no sense in being miserable," said Cornum.
She returned to the United States on March 6 and although her arms were not fully functional, her sense of humor was. When Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf greeted her, she couldn't manage to salute him with her broken arms.
"I'm sorry, sir, I normally salute four-star generals," she said.
Now 20 years after her time as a POW, her positive attitude and unique experiences have translated into the CSF program, whose motto is "Strong Minds, Strong Bodies."
"I not only have both a philosophical and a scientific understanding of the importance of being resilient and of those thinking skills, but I have a personal belief based on my personal experiences that those skills work."
The CSF program promotes optimism so it becomes second nature. She firmly believes in making the best of every situation and turning disadvantages into advantages.
"Any day there's a doorknob on the inside of the door is a good day," said Cornum.
Cornum is transitioning out of the Army this winter after serving for more than 33 years. Now, she wants to spend her time showing her dogs, training her horses, and spending time with her husband, Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum.
Today Cornum is no longer known as "Rambo Rhonda," however, her philosophy has remained the same throughout the years: "suffering is stupid, but whining is worse."
For more information on the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum visit www.csf.army.mil.