Flying deep into Iraq to rescue a downed pilot, Maj. Rhonda Cornum heard the crack of automatic weapons and saw green tracers coming up at her helicopter from an Iraqi bunker.
The helicopter was racing along only 15 feet above the ground, "yanking and banking" to avoid the Iraqi guns, when Cornum heard the pilot say, "We're going in." Those were his last words.The Blackhawk helicopter dipped to the left and thudded into the sand in a rolling "fur ball" before the tail end flipped over and turned the chopper into a twisted pile of metal and plastic.
"I ended up on my back between a part of the fuselage and the ground and I couldn't move," said Cornum, 36. "I wasn't scared. I was calm, probably in shock, but I was calm. Nothing hurt and it was very comfortable there. It was so quiet after all the gunfire and the engines and suddenly there is nothing.
"It was kind of funny. I wondered if I was dead and this was one of those out-of-body experiences."
Cornum saw flames and feared the chopper would explode. "I said, `Well, I'm not going to survive this crash and then burn up.' So I kind of checked and the only thing that was working was my left leg. I dug a hole under my right leg with my left leg and pushed myself out."
Four soldiers from Iraq's Republican Guards appeared and pulled Cornum up by the right arm, which was broken between the shoulder and the elbow.
"It wasn't a displaced fracture until they pulled me out," Cornum said. "Did I scream? Yes. The pain wasn't the worst. The worst was the sound of your bone going ` crunch.' "
The Iraqis took her 9-mm pistol, removed her flak jacket and took off her watch and the chain around her neck that carried her dogtags and wedding ring.
The Iraqis were in for a surprise when they pulled off her cracked helmet and her long, straight brown hair came tumbling down.
"That's probably when they realized I was a girl," she said. "There was a little flurry of comment about it, but they were speaking in Arabic."
That was the afternoon of Feb. 27. Cornum had two broken arms, torn ligaments in her right knee, a broken finger, cuts on her face and - although she didn't realize it at the time - a bullet in her right shoulder.
And she was a prisoner of war.
She talked about her experiences during a recent interview here. The green-eyed major, who is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 105 pounds, was dressed in jeans and a red shirt emblazoned with a green helicopter.
She was born in Dayton, Ohio, raised in upstate New York and studied at Cornell University, where she earned a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry. She had always imagined she'd become a professor. But while giving a lecture, she was approached by a man from the U.S. Army who said the Army labs were good, the pay wasn't bad and the researchers didn't have to teach.
"I never even knew anybody in the Army," she said, "but I joined in 1978, and for some reason - it's still not clear to me - I liked it."
She was given a direct commission as an officer, and the Army sent her to medical school in 1982. She did her internship in general surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, learned to fly a helicopter and jump out of an airplane. She became a flight surgeon.
Before the war, a typical day for Cornum began at 6 a.m on the flight line of Fort Rucker, Ala., where she would see her chopper pilot patients. Then she would report to the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory.
Home is in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., where she lives with her husband Kory, an Air Force captain and flight surgeon, and her 14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Regan.
Both Cornums were sent to Saudi Arabia in August, and Regan went to live with her father in North Dakota. "Regan expected us to go," Maj. Cornum said. "She would have thought we were wimps if we didn't."
They were sent to different bases, and Maj. Cornum lived in a parking garage underneath a mosque at the King Fahd airport, which is still under construction near Dhahran.
Her helicopter battalion was attached to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and went to the front on Jan. 10 to fly reconnaissance missions into Iraq.
One day her group even took some Iraqi prisoners, and Cornum held her pistol on five of them in the helicopter while her colleagues rounded up others.
When the ground war began on Feb. 24, the helicopters went far northwest into Iraq to the Euphrates River valley. On Feb. 27, there was a report that Capt. Bill Andrews, an Air Force F-16 pilot, was down inside Iraq. He was alive but his leg was broken.
"Doc Cornum" climbed into the back of a Blackhawk helicopter with the pilot, co-pilot, two door gunners and three "Pathfinders" - tough infantry troops specially trained to bring out downed pilots.
Two Apache gunships flew shotgun for the rescue mission. An AWACS radar plane flying orbits overhead directed them to the downed pilot.
"We were flying over all kinds of friendly stuff," Cornum said, but a minute after passing the last U.S. convoy, a 12-second barrage of Iraqi gunfire brought down the helicopter.
The two Apache gunships were under heavy fire and returned to the base, probably thinking the eight people on the downed Blackhawk had died, Cornum said.
"The Iraqis dragged me to a bunker 50 yards away," she said. "These were bunkers from hell. The walls were made of sandbags and there were stairs going down. These guys could really build."
By the light of kerosene lanterns she could see Sgt. Troy Dunlap, a Pathfinder and one of the two other survivors of the crash. "We didn't talk because that was discouraged," Cornum said, recalling the Iraqis yelled in English: "No talking! No talking!" and hit Dunlap.
"They kept us down there and interrogated us a little bit," she said. She and Dunlap admitted their names, since the Iraqis had their dogtags anyway, and said they were on a search-and-rescue mission.
Dunlap was taken outside again, and when Cornum was brought up, she found Dunlap kneeling in the sand in a circle of Iraqi soldiers.
"I knelt down next to him and we thought they were going to shoot us in the back of the head. I said something to Troy, probably something stupid and inane like, `It's going to be all right.' "
Instead of shooting them, the Iraqis loaded them into a pickup truck. Dunlap put his legs over Cornum so she wouldn't bounce, and the Iraqis tied her hands in front "because my arms were just kind of flopping around like rock-in-a-sock. I remember being very grateful that they hurt because that meant they were still attached."
Dunlap and she were separated and taken to dark cinderblock cells, where Cornum realized she had a new problem: "I have two broken arms and a flight suit and I have to go to the bathroom."
She motioned to the guard to help her remove her flight suit, which zipped up the front, but in an embarrassed panic the guard refused. He went for help, but the second guard also refused to undress her. A thirdguard came with a blue robe.
"They put this robe over my head and they get their knives out and start to cut my flight suit off. So now I've got three Iraqis looking at the walls. They won't look at this infidel woman. The flight suit goes down six inches and the robe goes down six inches.
"Finally we get there, but we still have the underwear problem. I still can't go to the bathroom. They were all relieved, but I say, `No, No, you're not done yet.' So they took that off, too."
After she finished, the Iraqis insisted - despite her protests - on replacing the underwear. "They wouldn't have this woman uncovered under this blue thing."
A few days into captivity, Cornum and other prisoners were put on a bus. She peeked under her blindfold and saw a man seated on the bus with his leg in a splint and wearing a flight suit. The man asked the Iraqi guard to close the window because it was cold, and when he did, the man told the guard, "Capt. Bill Andrews thanks you and the United States Air Force thanks you."
Andrews was the pilot that Cornum and the others had gone in to rescue.
On March 2, she said, they arrived at a hospital in Baghdad, where she and the third survivor of the crash, Staff Sgt. Daniel Stamaris Jr., received their first treatment from a doctor since their crash four days earlier.
They still didn't know the war had ended, but on March 5 they were taken to the Red Cross and met a group of American prisoners. The next day they were flown to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where television viewers saw Cornum, her arms in slings, be greeted on the tarmac by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Cornum was flown to the hospital ship USS Mercy, where she was reunited with her husband. "I didn't cry until March 10 when I saw my daughter in Washington," she said.
Her daughter Regan had one minor disappointment: Her mom hadn't brought back the bullet that was taken from her back by an Iraqi surgeon. "My daughter was disgusted. She said, `The coolest thing that happened is getting shot, and you don't have the bullet."'
As an Army officer, Cornum said that one lesson driven home by her experience is that the restrictions on women in combat are "stupid. "
"What we saw is that the role of women in the military has changed and we need to admit it up front," she said. "If you want to have them do office work, then hire them for that. Don't make them officers."
She said her experience was "an interesting chapter in my life, but it wasn't like I was there for a whole year."
She said that for sheer, awful terror, being captured didn't compare to an experience at home long before the war. That was when she didn't know where Regan had gone.
"Having my kid disappear for three hours probably shaved a year off my life," Cornum said. "Being a POW didn't take anything off my life."