DOTHAN, Ala. -- On a cold night during her week-long captivity in Iraq in the Persian Gulf war, Maj. Rhonda Cornum was loaded into a pickup truck with another American prisoner of war, a young male sergeant, and taken from an underground bunker to a small prison. During the 30-minute drive, an Iraqi guard kissed her repeatedly, pulled a blanket over their heads so that they would not be seen, unzipped her flight suit and fondled her breasts.
Major Cornum, a 37-year-old flight surgeon and biochemist from New York, had broken both arms, smashed her knee and had a bullet in her right shoulder as a result of the downing of her Army helicopter. She screamed in pain when the Iraqi tried to pull her flight suit down over her untreated and swollen arms. Before the ordeal was over, she told a presidential commission on women in the military on June 8, she was "violated manually . . . ."
Major Cornum's testimony stunned some of the members of the commission, which also learned in the hearing that Specialist Melissa Coleman, the other American female prisoner of war in Iraq, was the victim of "indecent assault."
Their treatment has since become an issue in the debate over whether women in the military should be allowed into combat. Those who favor limiting the role of women have seized upon Major Cornum's experience, saying it proves that women are more vulnerable than men in combat situations. None of the male prisoners, for instance, have reported that they were similarly abused during their captivity.
But other experts on POWs and on military personnel say the disclosure illustrates much larger issues: that rape and sexual abuse are two of the many forms of mistreatment suffered by prisoners of war, and that men as well as women are at risk. There is a need to raise the consciousness of American troops of both sexes about sexual abuse in the military in general, they say, not only in the case of being taken prisoner.
The issue is likely to receive more attention in the coming months as the panel, the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Services, draws up guidelines for women in the military that are due in mid-November. The details of the sexual abuse came shortly before the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III amid questions about his handling of a scandal involving the assault of 26 women, including 14 officers, at a convention of naval aviators last year in Las Vegas, Nev.
Major Cornum, who says her mission in the military is "to go to war," said it was puzzling and frustrating to see herself portrayed as a member of the weaker sex that needs protection that combat cannot guarantee. The straight-talking major sky dives, shoots beer cans and armadillos with a 9mm Beretta pistol and gets her red sports car up to 130 miles an hour on the roads of rural Alabama.
In August, she will fly a two-seater Glassair III plane she built with her husband, Kory, also a flight surgeon, on a two-week national promotional tour of her autobiography, "She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story," which she co-wrote with Peter Copeland, a journalist.
In an interview at a Dothan bar, Major Cornum said the sexual assault in Iraq "ranks as unpleasant; that's all it ranks."
"Everyone's made such a big deal about this indecent assault," she said, in her first interview since the war. "But the only thing that makes it indecent is that it was non-consensual. I asked myself, 'Is it going to prevent me from getting out of here? Is there a risk of death attached to it? Is it permanently disabling? Is it permanently disfiguring? Lastly, is it excruciating?' If it doesn't fit one of those five categories, then it isn't important."