A woman in arms

Monday Book Review

May 17, 1993|By Barbara Samson Mills

SHE WENT TO WAR. By Rhonda Cornum, as told to Peter Copeland. Presidio. 203 pages. $19.95.

IF THE enraged opponents of women in combat would read "She Went to War," their fears and prejudices should be dispelled. Maj. Rhonda Cornum may be remembered as one of two women prisoners of war during the Persian Gulf conflict who, though wounded, returned home alive.

This amazing woman is a flight surgeon on active duty with the Army, a medical doctor, pilot, paratrooper and Ph.D. in biochemistry, the wife of an Air Force flight surgeon and, last but not least, the (attractive) mother of a teen-age girl.

In 1991, deep in Iraqi territory, Major Cornum, the senior officer in a helicopter search and rescue mission, was shot down and captured with eight other soldiers. Only she and two others survived. Major Cornum came out of the ordeal with two broken arms, a bullet wound, severe knee injuries and the scars of sexual molestation.

But the physical aspects are only part of the story. On her return, Major Cornum was reluctant to tell her story because she felt she had done no more than her duty. On urging of writer Peter Copeland, who saw the extraordinary heroism of the woman, she agreed -- but on her terms: The account would embarrass neither her nor the Army.

Major Cornum grew up with parents and grandparents who did not stereotype her in a gender role in the '60s. She separated screws, nuts and bolts in her father's workshop, helped to restore and paint her grandparents' old farm house, collected frogs and was a good science student. She was in control, a woman ahead of her time.

While she was in graduate school in biochemistry at Cornell, her work impressed an officer at the Letterman Army Institute of Research at the Presidio of San Francisco, and she was invited to join the Army to do metabolic research. Rather than stay a lab technician all her life, she opted for military medical school.

Army life, then as now, was tough, and she met with the usual pressures and hardships that confront service women who dare to invade a male domain.

Major Cornum, of course, succeeded. Her hard training helped immensely in her Iraqi ordeal. She tells of her mistreatment and severe injuries in matter-of-fact terms. Her primary concern, she says, was to keep her "cool" and to assist her fellow prisoners.

In one of the most touching scenes, Major Cornum, with both of her arms useless, needs the help of a young American soldier to relieve herself. It is accomplished with dignity and respect, even under the painful and very private conditions under which both are functioning. Those who think allowing women in combat will lead to sex orgies in foxholes should take careful note.

What Major Cornum's ordeal demonstrates is the closeness among military people (with, of course, some exceptions) regardless of gender. Looking back on her ill-fated mission, Major Cornum writes, "We were crew members who had been shot down together and captured. More than that, we were members of the brotherhood of arms."

Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.

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