By Ms. Gloria Montgomery (Army Medicine)April 6, 2016
FORT HOOD, Texas -- Retired Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum was the guest speaker during Intrepid Spirit's Open House. Recently, the Desert Storm veteran shared her story of resilience in the midst of adversity to a packed conference room at Fort Hood Intrepid Spirit's Open House held in conjunction with March's Brain Injury Awareness Month. Her message: resilience can help anyone get through something, especially catastrophic events.
After fading in and out of consciousness, the 36-year-old Army flight surgeon woke up to a jolt of reality. Next to her was the mangled frame of the Blackhawk helicopter she had been riding in just hours before. Above her were five Iraqi soldiers with guns pointing at her head.
"Well at least I'm not dead," then-Maj. Cornum told herself.
She was now a prisoner of war, captured by Iraqi soldiers when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, Feb. 27, 1991, during a failed mission to rescue a downed Air Force jet pilot.
"By anybody's definition, it was an adverse experience," said Cornum. "But in the relative scheme of things, there were only two choices: you either die or you're a prisoner. That made being prisoner look a lot better."
"For me, it was just another problem in life," said Cornum, who rose to the rank of brigadier general before retiring to her Kentucky horse farm in 2012.
From the moment she realized her helicopter was about to crash to the mock execution she endured as a prisoner, Cornum credits her resilience with preparing her to "grow in the face of adversity and the ability to get back up if you get knocked down."
"I was constantly asked how I made it. To me, it didn't seem that difficult. You just do what you have to do that day," said Cornum, who was the commanding officer at Landstuhl Medical Center during the early stages of the war in Iraq.
Cornum's peppy optimism centers on her philosophy in life and viewing every problem as a challenge to overcome.
"It's not the event that causes the reaction -- it's what you think or believe about that event. You always have to find something positive in any crummy situation because the crummy event has occurred anyway," the urology specialist said. "If you have great confidence in yourself, saying that I will get through this, you're more likely to take advantage of opportunities."
Ever since her release, March 5, 25 years ago, Cornum's message of survival has resonated with Army leadership.
In 2008, she was selected to head the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program to teach Soldiers resilience skills that could help them better cope during adverse situations, especially when the event's aftermath results in post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury -- both of which escalated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A traumatic brain injury, according to Intrepid Spirit's director, Dr. Scott Engel, is the signature wound of the Global War on Terrorism with more than 324,000 service members diagnosed since 2000.
"It's an abysmal injury that can impact the whole person and those who love and care for the warrior," he said. "It disrupts memory, concentration, attention and the emotional and behavior regulation, sleep, physical and social occupational health and family relationships."
Cornum and Engel both said they believe programs like Intrepid Spirit and Comprehensive Soldier Fitness can and do help and train Soldiers to become physical fit, mentally tough and emotionally strong.
"I'm not telling you how you can make Minnie Mouse into Rambo, but everyone can get better," she said, adding that these programs help Soldiers become more adaptive, self-confident and optimistic and better able to make realistic decisions.
According to Cornum, being physically fit helps one withstand blood loss and shock, while being emotionally fit builds character, stamina and self-control. A healthy social and family life contributes to relationship building, and spiritual fitness helps one find purpose and meaning in life.
"I'm proof that it works," she said, stressing that everyone can increase their coping skills with training and effort.
"Just like physical fitness, psychological fitness can be improved with training," she said, adding that the time to learn these skills is not during a crisis. "This is the time you need to apply what you should have already learned because resilient thinking is going to make you able to get through bad things better. Psychological fitness really matters -- so it would behoove people to become more psychologically fit."