Female POWs prove women can endure war's hardships
By Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown March 31, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 30, 2011)

Maj. Rhonda Cornum could see her breath when she awoke on the fourth day of ground fighting during Operation Desert Storm.

It was February 1991, and the flight surgeon combated the chilly Iraqi morning by slipping on her jacket and nursing a few cups of hot coffee.

She was headed out on a routine flight to shuttle passengers, when her UH-60 Black Hawk crew received a call telling them their mission had changed and was now a rescue. That call changed Cornum's life forever.

A fighter pilot, Air Force Capt. Bill Andrews, had been shot down behind enemy lines and suffered a broken leg. Cornum's crew was the closest aircraft around.

"Unfortunately we flew right over a big bunker full of weapons and they shot the tail off my helicopter ... and they shot me," said Cornum, now a brigadier general.

Cornum was one of three Soldiers to survive the 140-mile-per-hour crash. She suffered two broken arms, a bullet wound to her shoulder, and a torn knee, only to be dragged from the wreckage and taken into Iraqi captivity.

She was held in a primitive underground jail cell for eight days in what she calls "austere" conditions. She was also sexually molested by an Iraqi Soldier while being transported to the prison, but said being fondled was low on her list of things going wrong that day.

"The molestation didn't do a thing to me," she assured. "It is just as irrelevant now as it was then."

Cornum said she was more surprised than emotionally damaged from the assault -- she was dirty, bloodied and badly wounded.

"If it doesn't increase the likeliness you were going to stay there longer, and it wasn't excruciating, and it wasn't life-threatening, then it really didn't matter," Cornum explained.

On March 6, 1991, Cornum was released along with 23 other prisoners of war in end-of-war negotiations.

Maj. Rhonda Cornum

Cornum's story is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. Few women have served as POWs.

From Florena Budwin, a Civil War woman who disguised herself as a man to join union troops and was held in a confederate prison camp, to the 67 Army nurses who were taken captive by the Japanese in World War II, there have been less than 100 military women held as POWs throughout American history.

As the debate of women serving in combat roles continues, Cornum said she believes the biggest contribution of her career is simply the proof that military women can persevere in tough situations.

While Cornum always felt that she was a strong person, she said her experience as a POW only confirmed her belief that she was resilient.

Specialist E-4,  U.S. Army


Melissa Coleman was born on March 9, 1970, in Newaygo, Michigan. She enlisted in the U.S. Army on September 8, 1988, and after attending basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, from September to November 1988, she was trained as a heavy vehicle driver at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, from November 1988 to February 1989. Her first assignment was as a driver with the 233rd Transportation Company at Fort Bliss, Texas, from February 1989 to October 1990, and then deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from October 1990 until she was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War by Iraqi soldiers on January 30, 1991. After spending 35 days in captivity, SPC Coleman (then Rathbun-Nealy) was released on March 5, 1991. After recuperating from her injuries, she served as a heavy vehicle driver at Fort Hood, Texas, from August 1992 until she left active duty on November 3, 1993. SPC Coleman received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army Reserve on June 25, 1996. Melissa Coleman holds the distinction of being the first enlisted female Prisoner of War in United States military history.

U.S. Army 1988-1993
U.S. Army Reserve 1993-1996
Cold War 1988-1991
Persian Gulf War 1991 (POW)

Melissa  A.  Coleman  

20 Years after first Gulf war, former POW still surviving
By Ed Lavandera, CNN Correspondent 
January 21, 2011 6:47 a.m. EST

Melissa Coleman 
San Antonio, Texas (CNN) -- Melissa Coleman has amazing stories to tell and some family members still can't get enough of the harrowing tales of her 33 days as a prisoner of war during the first Gulf war.

Even 20 years after the start of that war, Coleman can captivate an audience. She tells family friends or her daughters' classmates about American bombs that struck close to where she was held by her Iraqi captors.

"That was the biggest fear for me, I didn't think the Iraqis were going to kill me, but I was afraid of one of our bombs," Coleman tells CNN.
Or the story of how the Iraqi soldiers spared her the worst punishment because they were convinced she was an ignorant woman. She outsmarted them anyway.

"I played along with it," Coleman says. "I really don't know anything. I'm just a woman."

But 20 years after her 33 days as a POW, Coleman is fighting another battle: breast cancer. She was diagnosed five months ago and is preparing for a fourth round of chemotherapy.

Coleman says being a POW "helped me keep a positive outlook because I know what I can withstand." "I know that I've survived something as dangerous, if not more dangerous, so I feel like I'm going to make it."
Coleman says her doctors have removed all of the cancerous tumors for now and that she's been given a "good" prognosis.

The former Army specialist says she rarely thinks about her days as POW, but during those 33 days, Coleman was one of the most visible faces of the war.

Coleman was driving a truck on January 30, 1991, near the southern Iraq border. After a couple of confusing wrong turns, Coleman and another soldier riding alongside her found themselves in the middle of a firefight and surrounded by Iraqi soldiers.

Her parents, Leo and Joan Rathbun, held vigil from their home outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was an excruciating and painful wait.
Not knowing if she was still alive, the Rathbun's received a Valentine's Day card that she had mailed just hours before being captured. "When I first heard, I just sat by the TV and just cried the whole rest of the day. So, it was difficult," Leo Rathbun says.

But then came the 3 a.m. phone call that sent an eruption of joy through the Rathbun's home. A CNN producer called and told the family to turn on their television. For the first time in 33 days, the Rathbun's saw their daughter safe and alive being turned over by the Iraqis to the International Red Cross.

Looking back through the long lens of time, Coleman's parents say the POW experience changed their daughter in a fundamental way.
"She's a lot more serious about life and relationships now than what she was before," Joan Rathbun says. "Everyone means more to her. Life means more to her now."

Now she lives a quiet life in San Antonio with her husband and two teenage daughters.

Her oldest daughter, Briana, wants to join the Army and that's sparked a minor tug-of-war in the family. Coleman isn't comfortable with the idea, but Briana isn't giving up. The Coast Guard might be an acceptable compromise.

That's the kind of battle Coleman prefers these days, the struggles of raising teenagers and watching her girls prepare to venture out into the world.

"I'd like to be remembered for being a good mom," Coleman says. "I'd rather be remembered for that than being a prisoner-of-war."