ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT
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Treatment was bad, but improved for female POW in first gulf war
By Greg Barrett | GNS
WASHINGTON - It wasn't the sexual assault or mock execution that Army Major Rhonda Cornum recalls as the worst part of being a prisoner of war. It was the theft of her wedding ring, snatched from a chain around her neck.
Cornum, captured by the Iraqis during the Persian Gulf War when her helicopter crashed under fire in a desert near Basra, considered swallowing the ring to keep it from her Iraqi captors. But her two broken arms dangled at her sides like socks stuffed with loose change.
"I was helpless," she said this week from her home in the suburbs of Washington. "I was completely defenseless.''
The first 24 hours of her ordeal were harrowing, Cornum said. Immediately after her capture she was in the hands of enlisted men, some of whom appeared angry and trigger-happy. But as she was passed up the chain of command, she discovered her captors to be mostly professional and humane.
That should be welcome news today to the families of U.S. prisoners of war, and especially to the three U.S. servicewomen captured or reported missing in action in the southern region of Iraq.
"They can survive this and come out of it OK,'' said Cornum, 48. "I did. ... I'm fine today.''
Now an Army colonel at the National War College in Washington, Cornum recalled that Iraqi hospital orderlies hand-fed her pita bread and marmalade and sweet, sticky dates, then held their palms out for her to spit the pits. Iraqi guards who helped her undress to go to the bathroom looked the other way, embarrassed.
Competent Iraqi doctors took X-rays, reset Cornum's broken bones and removed a bullet from her shoulder. Three nurses in Baghdad bathed her gently and gave her toothpaste and a toothbrush, warning her to not lose the items because war had made supplies scarce.
Cornum's story is a far cry from the tales of torture, rape and mutilation of Kuwaitis that circulated in the days after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. She does not believe these crimes didn't - and couldn't - occur.
But she said her experiences with the same group of people in southern Iraq suggest today's U.S. prisoners of war will not be treated barbarically in the days to come.
Acronyms like POW and MIA have become a disturbing part of the collective vernacular, but Cornum holds out hope for all the U.S. prisoners of war. And she believes POW Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, and missing servicewomen Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va.; and Lori Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz., are just as likely as the men to return home OK.
Cornum was an Army flight surgeon on a search-and-rescue mission when her Black Hawk was downed on Feb. 27, 1991.
If the injuries and humiliation she endured as a POW left her scarred, it doesn't show.
"War is brutal,'' she said of her POW experience. "But you know what you sign up for when you join. No one made me join.''
Cornum's petite size - 5-foot-5, 110 pounds - belies her grit. She skydives, used to race steeplechase horses and helped build a two-seat fiberglass plane with her husband, Col. Kory Cornum, an Air Force flight surgeon and 6-foot-5 former college football lineman.
Their 1990 Christmas card shows the smiling couple holding rifles and posing on the wings of an F-15 fighter jet in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia.
She shrugs and smiles and talks tough, even as she describes her eight days of captivity, even as she recalls the "grungy'' drinking water and the musty bunker cells and sparse offerings of food.
Her tone is matter-of-fact as she talks of the clean-shaven conscript who kissed her blood-caked face, fumbled with the zipper of her flight suit and violated her with his hands in the back of a pickup as it lurched along the road toward Basra. Each time Cornum screamed, the soldier abruptly stopped, she said, apparently for fear the assault would be seen by other soldiers in the cab.
"He clearly knew it was something he wasn't supposed to be doing,'' Cornum said. "As illustrated by the (U.S. soldier) who the other day threw a grenade in a tent of U.S. soldiers in Kuwait, there are going to be a few dirtballs in everybody's army.''
A few days after the assault, a physician in Baghdad asked Cornum if she had been molested. She said no because she couldn't identify the assailant and didn't want to be accused of lying.
"In the overall scheme of things, it was a minor thing. It was not life threatening. It was not disabling,'' Cornum said, appearing tired of the subject. "It's a fixation of the media, but in the context of all the bad things that can happen in war, it was just one more bad thing the enemy could do. And they can do a lot of bad things.''
She was braced for the ultimate "bad thing,'' she said, that first night when she and Army Sgt. Troy Dunlap were told to kneel on the ground next to one another. She felt a cold rifle barrel pressed to the back of her neck.
"My head was lowered, and my hair had fallen in my face. I couldn't see out of my left eye; it was smashed shut and my hair was stuck to it with matted blood...,'' Cornum recalled in her book, ``She Went To War: The Rhonda Cornum Story.''
"The air was cool around us. One of the guards spoke a few words of English and he seemed to say, 'Kill them! Kill them!' I waited for the click of metal and the explosion. The moment seemed to last forever. ... My last thought was, At least it won't hurt.''
Instead, the soldiers jerked Cornum and Dunlap up and pushed them onto a pickup truck. Three days later they would travel by bus to the Al-Rashid Medical and Heart Surgery Center in Baghdad. At the time, they did not know President George H.W. Bush had called off the fight and a cease-fire was being negotiated.
En route to the hospital, Cornum and Dunlap were taken to an office and interrogated. To Cornum, it was reminiscent of the movies - a table, a bright light in her face, shadowy figures peppering her with questions. She knew nothing of significance, and the Iraqis allowed her to leave without harming her.
Dunlap, however, was smacked around when he refused to provide answers, said Cornum, who could hear the slaps from outside the door. But he, too, was allowed to go without being severely beaten.
When Cornum was loaded into a car to be taken to the Al-Rashid hospital, her Iraqi driver removed her blindfold and asked her it she'd like to see Baghdad. He drove her around as if he was proud of his city, which lacked electricity and working stoplights because of coalition bombing. As they pulled close to the hospital, the driver apologized and replaced the blindfold.
"I think the average guy in Iraq is pretty much like the average guy in America,'' Cornum said. "He wants to live life. He wants his children to have a better life than he did. He wants to be able to go home without something bad happening.''
During her three days at the hospital, Cornum sang loudly. She'd sing songs from Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel and show tunes from "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Cats" and "Oklahoma." Any lyrics she could remember.
"I knew they thought I was a crazy woman,'' she said. "But I'd read books about prisoners who were forgotten (by their captors) when the war ended. They weren't going to forget the crazy woman who sang. I wasn't going to be left behind.''
Cornum was released in a prisoner exchange to the International Red Cross on March 6, 1991.
Soon after, her husband had a duplicate made of the stolen wedding ring. It has strands of gold shaped into the shape of a bird's nest with a diamond in the middle.
The jeweler said she normally would give a lifetime warranty.
"But in your line of work,'' she told the Cornums, "I'm not sure I can do that.''