Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness director and former prisoner of war, gives an introduction to the two-week Master Resilience Trainer program at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Education Center, Aug. 8, 2011. Seventy-three soldiers, airmen and civilians
spent 80 class hours learning how to teach resilience techniques to their respective units. Photo by Luke Waack
JOINT BASE LEWIS McCHORD, Wash. (10/21/2011) -- 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
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 ingrained 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
Cornum was repeatedly questioned about her
mission, but never revealed any classified information, not
even with a rifle to the back of her head.
feel the cold metal barrel poking me in the back of the
neck," said Cornum. "I waited for the click of metal and the
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,"
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."
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
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
"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
The CSF program promotes optimism so it
becomes second nature. She firmly believes in making the
best of every situation and turning disadvantages into
"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.
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."
By Army Spc. Ryan Hallock
28th Public Affairs Detachment
Comment on this article