Rhonda Cornum

(WOMENSENEWS)–Fear contorts Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson’s face as she is questioned by her Iraqi captors on camera. Torture, starvation, lengthy captivity were just a few of the grim possibilities confronting her and other prisoners of war–or POWs–such as Jessica Lynch, who was dramatically rescued this week. They could also be sexually assaulted, as was Rhonda Cornum when she was taken prisoner in the first Gulf War.

More than 210,000 women are on active U.S. military duty and approximately one in seven U.S. military personnel now in Iraq is female. And thanks to the 1994 decision to overturn the so-called “risk rule,” many of them are on the front lines.

So, how does the Pentagon prepare them for possible sexual assault at the hands of the enemy? And is it equipped to treat them effectively should they meet that fate? Neither Cornum, a medical doctor and an Army colonel, nor Pentagon officials can discuss POW training strategies for obvious security reasons. But Cornum does warn against focusing too much attention on the issue of rape when it comes to female POWs.

“It’s just another bad thing that can happen to you,” she says.

The only publicly available information Cornum could offer is her guide to military health care workers. In it she stresses that “the emphasis on female sexual abuse is primarily cultural,” and that that approach “is based on the model of civilian women.” Servicewomen, Cornum argues “have a different willingness to take risks” and different priorities.

“While I was subjected to an unpleasant episode of sexual abuse during my captivity,” she writes, “it did not represent a threat to life, limb or chance of being released, and therefore occupied a much lower level of concern than it might have under other circumstances.”

A flight surgeon on a 1991 search and rescue mission in Iraq, Cornum was captured when her helicopter was shot down. She took a bullet in the shoulder, had a shattered knee and could not move her badly broken arms. Cornum says her main concern when an Iraqi soldier began to unzip her pants in the truck that picked her up was whether the pending assault would aggravate her grievous injuries.

In her guidelines, Cornum does offer some practical pre-deployment advice, recommending birth control methods such as the IUD or implants and suggests they be commenced before deployment “to avoid problems for monogamous women whose spouses might not understand the risk issue.”

Health Care Providers Should Let Victim Decide When to Talk

Upon repatriation, Cornum says health care providers should evaluate the “total condition” of the POW–male or female–and “not focus on any single aspect of their condition. The repatriated soldier . . . will tell you his or her primary concerns.”

In fact, Cornum did not discuss her own sexual assault for an entire year after her release, though she was interviewed extensively and testified about her POW experience before a congressional panel.

Sexual assault victim advocate Christine Hansen sympathizes with Cornum’s reticence. “Her concern has always been that information being public would not only violate her privacy but would serve the agenda of those who wish to prevent women from being in service,” says Hansen, whose non-profit, The Miles Foundation, Inc., advocates for victims of violence associated with the military.

To wit, conservative activist Elaine Donnelly jumped on Johnson’s recent capture to press that agenda. “Advocates of women in combat often talk about ‘sharing the risk’ of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks. The vulnerabilities unique to women can and probably will be exploited by enemy captors,” she writes in the March 27 National Review.

But Hansen warns that while defending their right to serve, women should not have to conceal or downplay a sexual assault. “It’s important to aid those who would be going into a war zone to protect themselves and ensure that we have readily available on the battle front those who can process rape evidence,” she says. That final point is particularly key, she notes, as rape is now classified as a war crime.

Jamie Zuieback, with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, agrees that it is hard to separate sexual assault from the other kinds of torture inflicted on POWs. And she points out that POWs may have one advantage. “There is not an element of perceived blame in the POW situation, there’s less chance that the victim would blame herself or engage in self-recrimination,” she says.

Men Are Victims Too

But Zuieback stresses that sexual assault does require special treatment and that quick intervention is key to minimizing lasting psychological damage. Sexual assault and wartime captivity are two top triggers for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to experts.

“To be a POW must be the most frightening experience and to have that degrading experience on top of it must be awful,” says Katherine Skinner, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Veteran Affairs is widely applauded for providing lifetime sexual assault counseling to all military members. But that treatment is only available after a member leaves the service, which is often too late for optimal results.

Most victims Veteran Affairs deals with are male as they make up the majority of the military population. But Ret. Naval Capt. Lory Manning with The Women’s Research and Education Institute says that “a lot of the men have come forward with their sexual assault stories but they wait until they’re out of the military.”

Manning and the victim advocates warn that one obstacle to getting victims to open up and seek treatment in a timely fashion is the male-dominated military culture itself, notoriously mum on such topics and fraught with rape scandals within its ranks.

“If these things are going on here then what do we expect of the enemy troops?” asks Skinner.

She concurs with Cornum’s view that the focus on sexual assault and POWs should be on men and women equally. Not only are male POWs are often subjected to sexual abuse, they also need to know how to cope should they witness the assault of a fellow soldier. A 20-year-old sergeant was present during Cornum’s assault but could not intervene, an experience that can be traumatizing.

Focusing concerns about sexual assault equally on military men and women can also disarm those like Donnelly, who aim to keep women back in the mess tents. “If I’m a crusader for anything, it’s equal opportunity for everybody,” Cornum writes in her 1992 autobiography, “She Went to War.”

Gretchen Cook is a freelance writer in Washington. A former White House correspondent, Cook is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, Marketplace Radio and The Washington Post.

For more information:

The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Dept. of the Navy–
“The Prisoner of War Experience”
By Colonel Rhonda Cornum, Ph.D. MD–Medical Corps, United States Army:

The Miles Foundation:

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: