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Dr. Rhonda L. Cornum

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1954

Medical School

Uniformed Services University, Bethesda


District of Columbia

Career Path

Surgery: Urologic
Dr. Rhonda L. Cornum


Dr. Cornum was the first woman flight surgeon to enter into combat with the U.S. Army’s 2-229th attack helicopter battalion during Gulf War.


I did not want to be a physician when I was a kid. I had thought about being a veterinarian, and then the truth is, I didn't think I'd get in to med school. And I really wanted to do research anyway—that was my ultimate goal after college. I wanted to do research for a living and I decided I could do that equally well, and probably better, in fact, for the Ph.D. So I was at Cornell and just stayed there, to get my Ph.D. It was really wanting to do clinical research, human research, that made me decide to go to medical school. I was doing clinical research. We did blood preservation and we did blood amplification. Treating blood so it delivers more oxygen than regular blood. But I wanted to be able to do the clinical trials, and I wanted to be able to do that as the head of something, and I thought I would be better at it. Also, I liked the army, and I thought my career path would be more interesting if I was in the medical corps. I was currently in the medical service corps. So I decided I'd go to medical school. Now I have to say, it was very fortunate for me, and serendipitously happy, that I really liked medicine. I liked taking care of patients. But I didn't know I would until I got there.


Retired Brigadier General Rhonda L. Cornum has enjoyed a distinguished career as an Army medical doctor and officer, and is an advocate for gender equality. In 2001, when she held the rank of colonel, she explained that, "You shouldn't think of yourself as a female colonel. You should think of yourself as a colonel who just happens to be a woman... I guess if I'm a crusader for anything, its equal opportunity for everybody."

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1954, Cornum earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Cornell University in 1971. Planning to pursue a career as a research scientist, she was recruited by the army while attending a conference presenting the results of her research on amino acids.

Colonel Cornum was enthusiastic about the opportunities the army could offer her—"where else could a... woman who is also a physician and a surgeon get paid to jump out of an airplane?" She earned an expert field medical badge, an airborne badge, and learned to fly helicopters as a flight surgeon. She met her husband Kory, an Air Force flight surgeon, while in training. They have a daughter, Regan.

In 1986, Colonel Cornum was awarded an M.D. degree from the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. She completed a medical residency in urology at Brook Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, Texas. She has been stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and Fort Rucker, Alabama, where she was awarded Flight Surgeon of the Year in 1990.

During the first Gulf War, Dr. Cornum, then a Major and flight surgeon of the Army's 2-229th attack helicopter battalion, was shot down aboard a Black Hawk helicopter deep inside Iraq during a rescue mission to recover a downed Air Force pilot. With multiple injuries and a bullet lodged in her back, Cornum was taken into custody by Iraqi soldiers. She spent eight days as a prisoner of war (P.O.W.), but was ultimately released. "Looking at it in the context of my life," Cornum says, "it was a very bad week, but it doesn't define me".

Since then, Cornum has spoken widely about her experience, publishing her autobiography She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, and testifying before Congress on the role of women in combat. She has also appeared before the Supreme Court on issues involving military educational institutions' admissions policies. "Whether it's being a jockey, a scientist, a pilot, or a commander, I've always identified with the activity first... I really don't think that opportunities should be gender based..."

Colonel Cornum has attended the Army's Command and Staff College and the National War College. She has held posts as commander of Fort Bragg's 18th Airborne Corps 28th Combat Support Hospital and an Army Medical Unit in Tuzla, Bosnia. In 2003 she assumed command of the Army Hospital at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Colonel Cornum has received many military honors, including the Bronze Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

I don't think I ever faced any obstacles in the way to accomplishing anything, except those I put in my own way. If I wasn't willing to work hard enough to do something, then I didn't get it then. But really, I think everything I've really desperately wanted to do, I was able to work hard enough to accomplish it. I think one of the things I have told [people]—and I've spoken at graduations—whether it's from college, high school, or grade school—is: do not let other people's expectations of you limit your expectations of yourself. I remember when I was in high school, I did quite well. I graduated at the end of my junior year, I was 16, and I got a full tuition scholarship to go to college. But, I wasn't always the "perfect kid." And I also didn't hang out with a bunch of other people necessarily who were in that same... "I'm gonna go to college tomorrow" kind of mold. And I remember I'm standing in line to graduate, and I'm the national merit scholar kind, ...and the principal comes over to me and says, "You know... we never thought you'd make it." And I said, "Well, you know? There was never any doubt in my mind." Do not let what your folks did, or what your neighbors did, or what they all think you can do, limit what you try to do. I guess that was my message for myself, and I think it was a pretty good one.

How do I make a difference?

Certainly my experience in the Gulf War—both going to the front with a unit, and being captured, and coming out of it successfully, that was not what was expected to happen to women in the military at that time. We had risk rules, and we had "no women in combat" kind of things. I've had people ask me—do I think I set a new standard or something—well, no. I think the standard was already set. This is what we expect people to do in these situations. I think all I did was demonstrate that women are just as likely to be able to achieve those standards as anyone else. And since we demonstrated that, then they had less justification for continuing to exclude women from those roles. So it was about two years after the Gulf War, that they opened up, for example, combat aircraft to women. And they've done very well in Kosovo, and they've done very well in Afghanistan, and they've done very well in the Iraq war. Iraqi Freedom. So it's not even news any more that they're doing those missions. So I think if I had any contribution, it was helping to open some of those doors that were otherwise closed; and the POW experience, while unfortunate personally, was important. Because that had been one of the reasons that people gave. Well, women, if they go to war, might get captured. Well, yes, they might, and we come out just like the guys who get captured. You know, you fix your broken bones, and you go back to work.

Who was my mentor?

I had some people who were very important to me. Certainly my grandparents were an outstanding example, in terms of hard work, dedication, commitment, staying on task. And my grandfather was a Marine in World War II. I have great respect for what those guys did. Scholastically I think it must have been tenth grade. Tenth grade—my tenth grade science teacher... my tenth grade chemistry teacher, Pitsa Cardi, really, probably is the reason why I wanted to be a scientist. He was a chemist, he'd been an industrial chemist, and then came back and taught high school after that. And I was really excited by chemistry, it made sense, it was challenging... and he was such a great guy. One of the most fun things I got to do was help write the justification for him, then help deliver him getting the America Chemicals Society Teacher of the Year when I got back... He was retiring, and it was—here we are 15 years later or something. Because it was an opportunity to give back something to him. I feel confident that if it had not been for that one experience, I could have gone down a way different path.

How has my career evolved over time?

I had no military experience, and really no military aspirations or knowledge until I was in graduate school, getting my Ph.D. in nutrition and biochemistry. And then I went to an FACEB meeting-- Federation of Experimental Biology—and I was giving a talk, and after my talk was finished, this man came and he looked like a perfectly normal person, came in a business suit—said: "You know, we're looking for somebody who does exactly that kind of research in our lab." He says: "The only catch is, you'd have to join the army."

Now, how I got into military medicine, I did research at Letterman for four years, and then wanted to do more clinical human research, and decided we better do that with an M.D. as well as a Ph.D., so then I went to med school.

You know, I'm a physician, I've worked at Brook Army Medical Center; I've worked at Walter Reed, and the Walter Reed Research Center. I've worked at UCRAL, the Aero-medical Research Lab, and have gotten to do a lot of really cool things; but at the same time they encourage you to jump out of airplanes, and rappel out of helicopters...

When Gulf war one started—Operation Desert Shield—that was August of '90. So I went, basically what I did, I had a group of five medics and myself, who took care of the battalion, which was 335 people all told—pilots, mechanics, cooks. So we went about two weeks later, I guess it was still in early August of '90, went to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Lived somewhat miserably for a long time and then in January we deployed out into the desert out west, and then when the war started, moved north.

When I went to Bosnia, I went in March of 2001. I was the Medical Task Force Commander. So I had a very small about 20-bed hospital there. We also had the veterinary services. We had the preventive medicine services. We had the six helicopters for medical evacuation, that's what we did there.

With my current position, I'm the Commander of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. It's now the biggest, the hub for where people are evacuated when they're injured or ill, and anybody—basically any conflict the military has in the Middle East or in Europe. And in fact, most people that are injured in Africa come then through Lahdstuhl. So it is certainly the evacuation hub for all the services. It's not an exclusively army thing any longer, it is Air Force and Army; in fact, I'd say probably a third of the medical staff is Air Force there. But not only do we have a very large population of family members, and dependents who live in Europe who also take advantage of our services; and I really happen to like doing operational medicine—so if I can't go to the field, and I can't go jump out of the helicopter with somebody, this is the closest thing I can get to, and I just really like it.

The National War College that I went to last year, was really a great experience. Basically, we learnt about military strategy. But in order to learn something about military strategy, you have to learn about national security, policy, and international relations, and the best part about it—I think—has been the other people who are at it. Because it's not a single service, it's not just military... we have all services represented—we have the Coast Guard, we have people from the CIA, we have people from the FBI, we have people from the State Department, we have people from the Department of Energy. So you meet people who are going to, people in your class are going to be the senior leaders of their respective organizations and they're all successful, they're all bright, they're all secure. So it's just an opportunity to meet with a world-class group of people that all know something different than you do, so they're really interesting. In addition the other really great things about the War College—I really had a wonderful year. They say it's going to be the best year of your life, and it may have been close to have been—we have a world-class faculty as well, but we also have the international students. So, colonels, generally, and a couple of one-star generals, from nations from all over the world. They have a very important perspective. It's one of the opportunities that we get to understand how they see things, and how what we do can be interpreted. And that's, I think, really important.