A Woman's Burden

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An Iraqi ambush of U.S. supply column last weekend turned Shoshana Johnson into the first American woman POW since a 1994 military rule change that allowed the deployment of women in situations where they could face enemy fire or capture. But Johnson is not the first American servicewoman held by the Saddam’s armed forces. Major Rhonda Cornum, currently studying at the National War College in Washington, was captured by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. She shared her experience with TIME correspondent Cathy Booth Thomas in 1992.

"Ma'am", Dunlap said quietly, "you're really tough."

"What'd you think, I'd cry or something?" I asked with a laugh.

"Yeah, I thought you would.”

"That's okay, Sergeant," I said after a while. "I thought you'd cry too."

Rhonda Cornum, her voice laced with gentle sarcasm, calls it the "famous sexual assault." It happened in the back of a truck, somewhere behind Iraqi lines in February 1991. A flight surgeon on a downed Blackhawk, she and Sgt. Troy Dunlap had been taken captive. As they bumped along a desert road in the dark, her Iraqi captor pushed her muddy, bloodied hair out of her face — and kissed her. Pulling a blanket over them, he unzipped her flight suit and started fondling her.

Weighing just 110 pounds on a 5-foot-6 frame, with both of her arms broken and a bullet in her back, she couldn't fight. If she bit her assailant, she worried he'd hit her and break even more bones. She vowed not to scream, but every time he knocked her broken arms, she couldn't stop a scream of pain. Her main worry wasn't rape, she says, but rather that the shackled Dunlap might get himself shot trying to defend her. "Other than that, it didn't make a big impression on me," she says, shrugging. "You're supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death. Having faced both, I can tell you it's not. Getting molested was not the biggest deal of my life."

There have been fewer than 100 female POWs in U.S. history — one in the Civil War, scores of nurses held by the Japanese on the Philippines during World War II, two in the first Gulf war and now, one more. In person and in her book, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, the doctor, soldier, wife and mother — then 38 — wrote about her ordeal with a gung-ho matter-of-factness. As a flight surgeon assigned to the 229th Attack Helicopter Regiment at Fort Rucker, Alabama, she was aboard a Blackhawk searching for a downed F-16 pilot on February 27, 1991 when the aircraft came under fire. Five soldiers on board died. Cornum and two others survived. Pinned under the wreckage, she dug her way out with two broken arms, a broken finger, a gunshot wound, torn knee ligaments, an eye glued shut with blood, and other injuries.

For eight days, she was in Iraqi custody. Although the fear was frequently palpable, she was never tortured and her chief enemy, she says, was boredom. "Being a POW is the rape of your entire life. But what I learned in those Iraqi bunkers and prison cells is that the experience doesn't have to be devastating, that it depends on you," she writes.

Safely back at Fort Rucker the following year, Cornum had little patience with those who use her as an example of the horrible things that can happen to women in war. "Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted. Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every 10 years in a war overseas? It's ridiculous," she said. "It's clearly it's an emotional argument they use (to argue that women should be kept away from the frontlines) because they can't think of a rational one."

Gender in the military is not much of an issue while the bullets are flying, she said. "This whole issue is being argued by people not in the military, or if in the military, they have never worked with women. I have never pulled a guy out of a wrecked helicopter and had him say, 'Would you please not do this? I'm waiting for a male.'" When she was captured by the Iraqis, no one seemed to care that she was a woman.

Conflicts such as the one in Iraq blur the distinction between the frontline and the rear, she added. "Front-line combat takes on a different meaning when you have Scuds going over all the soldiers and landing on the rear troops." Women who serve as intelligence or chemical officers may find themselves in combat situations, yet are barred by regulations from serving on the "attack staff." Cornum even found herself guarding five Iraqi soldiers at one point. "It's ironic that women can ride in a Humvee but they can't ride in a tank. Seems to me you're a lot safer in a tank," she said. "They are not worried about risk. If they were worried about risk, women wouldn't be firemen and policemen. The problem is that we've had this tradition in the military that women aren't offensive."

Cornum scoffed at the theory that women lack the animal instinct required to kill. "War is not a hormonal event. It is a profession with discipline…. We're not people who club and bludgeon people to death any more. No one objects now to women flying fighters, bombers, and attack helicopters. They seem to object to hand-to-hand combat. Personally, I've never met a woman who wanted to be in the infantry. But if they're big and strong and tall, and they want to do it, they'll end up there. Gender should not be a discriminator in combat roles."

She had authored the battle plan for her unit that exposed her to danger during the Gulf War. It required that a Blackhawk helicopter carrying a medical officer — in this case, herself — would follow the unit’s Apaches on missions to save time in treating any downed personnel. She notes with amusement that when their Blackhawk came under fire, the soldiers onboard jumped on top to protect her — although the bullets were coming from below, which meant her body was blocking the bullets. "I got shot and none of them did, but their hearts were in the right place. I've heard that argument that men will risk their lives to protect a woman. I have to point out that our two Apaches did not loiter over our crash to protect me. They did the only reasonable logical thing and left."

She shrugs off the indignities that fell her as a woman POW, including the first embarrassing moment when she had to go to the bathroom but couldn't get her one-piece flight suit off because of her broken arms. "Looking back, it is kinda funny," she says. "I can remember looking ridiculous with my arms hanging out to here. A sense of humor and little denial go a long way in making this a bearable thing."