Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.
In this first instalment, Dr Brain Laslie provides a review of one of the first memoirs to emerge after the end of the First Gulf War; She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story. Rhonda Cornum’s story is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides an army view of the air war rather than the more common air force view. Second, much of its focus relates to the latter part of the conflict, and finally, and most importantly, the book provides an insight into the experience of female prisoners of war (POW) in wartime.
Rhonda Cornum with Peter Copeland, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story (30th Anniversary Edition). Cardiff, CA: Waterside Productions, 2020. Pbk. 240pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
This was it. This was life as a POW. This was my life for the near future. This room, those walls, that ceiling. My reality. (p. 168).
Major Rhonda Cornum was a member of the US Army’s 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion attached to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation DESERT STORM. As a medical doctor, her job was to fly as a member of a UH-60 crew behind attacking AH-64 Apaches and provide medical support to any downed aircrew. On 27 February 1991 – the fourth day of the ground war – Cornum and the other members of her UH-60 crew diverted to become a search and rescue aircraft sent to pick up a downed F-16 pilot, Captain William F. Andrews. During the rescue mission, the UH-60 she was riding was shot down. Her subsequent ordeal is detailed in the book She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story (with her co-author Peter Copeland). Originally published in 1992, Cornum’s book was one of the early personal reflections of service during DESERT STORM. The book has now been re-released as part of the 30th anniversary of DESERT STORM.
The crash resulted in the loss of Chief Warrant Officer Four Philip Garvey, Chief Warrant Officer Three Robert Godfrey, Sergeant 1st Class William Butts, Staff Sergeant Patbouvier Ortiz, and Sergeant Roger Brelinski. Only three crew members survived: Cornum, Staff Sergeant Daniel Stamaris, and Specialist Four Troy Dunlap. The three survivors were rapidly captured by the Iraqi military (pp. 12-3). Among the trio of survivors, Cornum was the most seriously injured. Her injuries sustained in the crash included ‘two broken arms, both at odd angels; a smashed finger […] a blown out knee and various lacerations and bruises’ (p. 79-80) and – as she later discovered – a bullet wound in her back (pp. 97-8).
Captured almost immediately Cornum was taken to a series of bunkers and one gets the sense that the Iraqi military was not entirely prepared to deal with her and other captured Americans preferring to shuttle them up the chain of command. This description harkens back to Everett Alvarez’s early days of captivity after he became the first POW during the Vietnam war and detailed in his autobiography Chained Eagle (1989).
Cornum, suffering from her severe wounds, also learned to deal with a myriad of other problems. These problems included boredom and the indeterminable waiting for something to happen (p.39, 41), a sexual assault at the hands of one of the guards, and the complete inability to do anything on her own from dressing to going to the bathroom. Cornum was forced to rely on her captors or a fellow POW to help her with her dressings and personal hygiene.
She Went to War certainly deserves to be included under the rubric of air power books coming out of DESERT STORM, but this particular book is essential for another reason as it is one of the few works that explore the experience of female POWs. Cornum and US Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy were the only two female POWs taken prisoner during DESERT STORM. As such, Cornum’s insightful work adds something unique to the historiography of DESERT STORM; a female perspective. Indeed, arguably the critical work on POWs’ experience during DESERT STORM remains Tornado Down (1992), the account of Britain’s Flight Lieutenants John Peters and John Nichol who were shot down on the first day of the air campaign. As we enter into a period of historical reflection thirty years later, Cornum and Copeland’s book should enter the conversation as one of the great memoirs to come from DESERT STORM.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Northern Command. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of three books: The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force and the forthcoming Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie and at www.brianlaslie.com.
Header image: A left front view of a US Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in flight during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: US Department of Defense)