Rhonda Cornum embarked on a combat search and rescue mission the morning of 27 February 1991 to recover an Air Force pilot shot down over Iraq during Operation DESERT STORM. Tragically, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was aboard crashed as a result of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. One of only three survivors from the eight-member crew, Major Cornum was captured and taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard. Suffering two broken arms, a severely damaged leg, and gunshot and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder and head, she survived imprisonment behind Iraqi enemy lines. An Army flight surgeon, wife, and mother, she was repatriated on 6 March 1991 as one of only two women POWs from the Gulf War. Although US law prohibited women from serving in combat roles, her experiences and open dialogue as a POW helped pave the way for continued Congressional expansion of military women in combat roles.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Cornum started her military career in 1978 as an Army medical researcher. She completed medical school at the Uniformed Services University in 1986, and was quickly drawn to the combat field and aerospace medicine arenas. Her love of flight grew as she completed airborne, air assault and flight surgeon training. Her medical aviation research enhanced use of helmet mounted displays in advanced attack helicopters and in pilot performance. She and her husband also built their own experimental aircraft by hand.
After repatriation, Cornum became the first medical officer to graduate from Air Command and Staff College 1992. She continued medical training and research in the field of urology, commanded the 28th Combat Support Hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed as the Medical Task Force commander to Bosnia. She was also the first female commander of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, leading medical treatment for over 26,000 injured veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before retiring in 2012 as a brigadier general, Cornum founded and led the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Center. The Center develops psychological strengthening and resilience training to aid military members in surviving difficult, even life-threatening, situations. She has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Air Medal, POW Medal and others for her service.
Brig Gen Cornum was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 2012 and subsequently honored in 2017.