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war stories: rhonda cornum

listen too rhonda cornum's story
But at that point, I looked up and I saw five Iraqi guys with their, you know, rifles pointed at me. So then I knew I wasn't dead. And I knew I was captured.

Then one of them reached down, grabbed me by the arm, and stood me up. And that's when he separated my already broken right arm. And then I knew I was pretty badly hurt and clearly, clearly not dead.

Were you aware, could you see the others?

Could not see. It was very dark by this time. Now it had been, it'd been cloudy and smoky when we went in, at I think it was like 4.15 in the afternoon. And I don't know what time it was when they captured us, but I would guess, probably... It was dark, completely, you know, night time, so it was a couple of hours later.

Did you assume you were the only one that'd...?

At that time I assumed I was only one that survived... 'cause I didn't anybody else. And I knew that I...

And so they... captured me and, and I got taken down into a bunker and questioned a little about... you know,

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" That stuff.

And... I came out and then they... dragged me over to this group of Iraqi soldiers. And... this group of them... it was, like, a circle of them, and they opened up and they threw me down next to somebody else, and that was Sergeant Dunlap. And that's when I knew there was another survivor.

What happened next?

Well actually, the next thing was probably the scariest thing of our entire trip there. Because they just stood there and they put their handguns to the back of our heads, and we really thought they were gonna shoot us.

We thought "Well, you know, at the end of the war, they're gonna retreat. They don't want prisoners, and this will take care of that problem."

And, you know, who knows what they're thinking. But we both thought we heard them say

"Shoot 'em!"

And then nothing happened. They dragged us back to our feet and took us down to some other bunker to get interrogated some more.

Describe the moment when they first realised they had a woman.

...They realised I was a woman when they stood me up, and at that point I had my flak jacket on and my survival vest and my weapon, all that stuff, and they started taking all this stuff off. And they took off my helmet. And when I fly, I don't wear pins and stuff in my hair, so that my hair stays up just because it's in the helmet.

So they took off my flight helmet, and all this long below shoulder length brown hair came out. And until then I'm sure they just thought I was a skinny guy. But... all of a sudden they realised, "Oh my goodness, this is a girl!"

And ... they ... became a little louder. I don't know what they said, but they were surprised to see me there.

What happened next?

And we had maybe a 30 minute ride in the dark, to Basra. I'm not even sure I knew it was Basra, except that I...knew basically where we were going on the mission. I knew that was the only city that was around. And ... they took us to a prison there.

And as you were bouncing around in that truck, how were you feeling?

I was ... just ... trying to relax, and trying to ... I don't know, I was just wondering what was happening, I guess. And that was when it... and it was this last ride, to Basra, where I got molested.

What happened?

Well, I was... just leaning back on the seat, and all of a sudden, I feel this, this guy sitting next to me, who puts his hands on my face and starts to kiss me. I thought, "Well, how bizarre!"

And... I never, I don't know what I was thinking, but I really thought, "Surely he can do better!"

I mean I've got ... a cut above my eye that's soaked with blood and ... I'm sure I don't smell very good. And I'm thinking, "How can he possibly want to do this?"

...And then he ... unzipped my flight suit and started fondling me. And I thought, "I can't believe it!"

But I really wasn't ... there was no way to fight, I couldn't move anything anyway. I didn't really want to make him real mad, I didn't want to bite him. And so I did nothing. I just sat there.

Except when he tried ... to take me by the back of the head and put my head down in his lap, and I couldn't because my arms didn't move then. And that was excrutiating.

And... I feel confident he knew he shouldn't be doing what he was doing. Because every time I'd scream, he'd quit. So I think the idea was that the guys in the front of the truck weren't supposed to know.

Why did he stop, do you think? Was it simply because he didn't realised how much pain you were in when you were screaming?

No, I don't... Well, I don't know. I suspect that ... it was more he didn't want to get in trouble. I think if the other guys hadn't been there, he probably wouldn't have stopped either way. But I don't know that. I mean ... I don't know.

I just was amazed that he would want to do that ... That was my first thought really. Just amazed.

And that was really my biggest concern. I mean, a lot of people make a big deal about getting molested, and I'm ... sure it's a ... it's a big deal. ...But in the heirarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list.

Well next, he stopped, zipped my flight suit back up, ... 'cause we were obviously getting to wherever it was we were going. And I was grateful that it had been a shorter trip than it could've been, I suppose...

I read in your book that you were running through `Proud to be an American'. That thing that bothered you in terms of the...

Well I ... I've spent very little of the war worried about whether or not I was female. It just didn't seem to matter. But I'm reasonably astute, and I could tell that when we came back to the States, that that was going to be on other people's minds. I mean ... there had been a few people who had comment about,...

"What are you doing there? You're a girl ..." that kind of thing.

So, I didn't want anyone to think that I was weaker or ... more emotionally vulnerable or anything like that, when I got back.

And I have to say that, when they sing that song, `I'm Proud to be an American', I mean I always well up. It's kind of like when they play Taps or something.

And ... so ... I played this song over in my mind several times. And ... when we were coming back to the States, to get the welcome back thing, I had somebody bring me a tape of it, so I could listen to it, and I could practise hearing it without crying!

Did it work?

It worked, as a matter of fact. ...The only time I cried was when I saw my kid.

Q The crusty old Colonels, who say women shouldn't be in the armed forces...


... said this a million times, but I want to ask you.

You know, the Colonels I'm not sure really say that. The people who I think are most ... against women in the military are not the Colonels. I think it's the old Generals. And, just because it's so different than what they're accustomed to.

I think by the time you're a Colonel nowadays in the army, ... your entire career you've had women. And most of the ones that I have spoken to have had basically good experiences with having mixed units.

... I think some of the young guys ... who have two things. One is that they're ... in units that don't have any, because at lower platoon level, like in the infantry, ... there aren't any women, so they don't have any experiences of having them in their unit ... And [then they have] the experience of having women in their lives that are not in the military ... So all they have to go on is ... the stereotypes they hear about.

Well, if the only experiences I had with women were my sisters and my mother, and my girlfriend, I probably wouldn't want them in the military either.

But most guys I know discover, once they have worked with women, that women are just like everybody else. There are some that are just awesome, some that are absolutely worthless, and most of 'em are just in between. And I think the percentage of males who are that way is the same as the percentage of females who are that way.

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