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Desert Storm Black Hawk Incident Was a Mix of Heroism, Tragedy

To many Americans, the words “Black Hawk Down” refer to a 1993 battle in Somalia, recaptured in a film based on the book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden.

An earlier UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter loss is important to the Army’s history. It happened during Operation Desert Storm.

On Feb. 27, 1991, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf were mobilized for a hoped-for rescue of Air Force Capt. William F. Andrews, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who was shot down and parachuted into an area infested with Iraqi Republican Guard troops.

In an interview after the war, Andrews said it “probably would have been difficult,” for anyone to rescue him since he was “almost immediately surrounded by bad guys.” Despite a broken leg, he did escape for a few minutes only to be recaptured. At gunpoint from Iraqi soldiers, Andrews used his survival radio to warn another F-16 pilot overhead of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile launch. His four words were “Missile launch! Break, break!” They are credited with saving an A-10 pilot overhead – and they resulted in an award of the Air Force Cross to Andrews.

Officers interviewed after the war describe confusion in deciding whether to try to rescue Andrews. A senior officer later said he authorized the attempt, while rescue experts at a lower level counseled against it. Against this advice, a decision was made to launch an Army Black Hawk of the 2nd Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Four Philip Garvey and using the radio callsign Bengal 15.

An article in the Aug. 20, 2001 U.S. News & World Report describes pilot Garvey receiving a last-minute radio call before taking off. “Do you have Doc Cornum on board?” someone asked Garvey. Maj. Rhonda Cornum was flight surgeon for the battalion and quickly joined others aboard the helicopter as it took off and lifted skyward.

“This was the real thing, combat search and rescue,” Cornum wrote later in her autobiography, She Went to War, co-authored with Peter Copeland. “My heart beat faster and my stomach tightened. This was it. We were doing it for real.”

American fighter pilots in the area were warning that a rescue wasn’t possible. “The Black Hawk crew went in without a map and without intelligence,” said Darrel Whitcomb, an author, analyst and retired Air Force Reserve colonel.

Small-caliber weapons firing green tracers hit the Black Hawk. Over the radio, someone warned Garvey: “Don’t put the rotor in the ground, Phil!” Instead, veering sideways so its 53-foot, 8-inch diameter would slam into the ground, Bengal 15 flew straight into a berm at a speed of 130 knots, buckled, and flipped over.

Former prisoner of war Maj. Rhonda Lee Cornum, a flight surgeon assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 229th Aviation Brigade, sits next to U.S. Army Col. Richard Williams on a C-141B Starlifter transport aircraft after her release by the Iraqi government during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo

An AH-64 Apache pilot following the Black Hawk reported that the aircraft had exploded in a fireball upon impact and that the crew was presumed dead.

Iraqi troops surrounded the helicopter almost immediately.

Killed in the crash were Garvey, Chief Warrant Officer Three Robert Godfrey, Sgt. 1st Class William Butts, Staff Sgt. Patbouvier Ortiz, and Sgt. Roger Brelinski. Seriously injured and taken prisoner were Cornum, Staff Sgt. Daniel Stamaris, and Specialist Four Troy Dunlap.

Cornum was one of two women held prisoner during Operation Desert Storm. She later wrote of being abused in captivity.

Some press reports identified her incorrectly as an Army helicopter pilot. She sustained the most serious injuries of the trio and was kept alive in part because of help from Dunlap.

Cornum had only been severely injured, but her first thought was that she might be dead. “When I looked up and saw four or five Iraqi soldiers standing over me … carrying AK-47s,” Cornum recalled, she knew she had survived. Still, she had two broken arms, a bullet wound to her shoulder, and several other injuries. Iraqi troops quickly took her prisoner along with the two other Black Hawk survivors.

In an interview, Cornum acknowledged that she was sexually assaulted in captivity. It happened in the back of an Iraqi Army truck bumping along a desert road in the dark. An Iraqi soldier wiped Cornum’s muddy, bloodied hair away from her face and attempted to kiss her. After pulling a blanket over the two of them, the Iraqi began unzipping Cornum’s flight suit.

Then-Maj. Rhonda Lee Cornum, a flight surgeon assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 229th Aviation Brigade and a former prisoner of war, is reunited with a loved one upon her return to the United States after being held captive by Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. Cornum is now a brigadier general serving in the Pentagon. DoD photo

At five foot six and 115 pounds and severely wounded, Cornum had few options for fighting back. She knew that at any time her assailant could strike her and break more bones. She resisted quietly but screamed with pain when the Iraqi touched her injured arms. Cornum said her main worry was that Dunlap, the American sergeant with her, might try to defend her and be shot. “Other than that, [the sexual assault] didn’t make a big impression on me,” she said in an interview with Time Magazine. “You’re supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death. Having faced both, I can tell you it’s not. Getting molested was not the biggest deal of my life.”

Most observers give the Black Hawk crew credit for great heroism. They were not merely willing, but eager, to go into harm’s way when an American was down and needed help.  Still, experts say that in rescue work the most difficult decision often is the one not to attempt a save. Bengal 15 was launched on a mission that was flawed, but its crew performed nobly.

Iraq released prisoners of war in March 1991, shortly after the Persian Gulf fighting ended – among them, Cornum, Stamaris, Dunlap, and Andrews.

Today, Cornum is a brigadier general in the Pentagon. She is one of the few female soldiers to be awarded the Purple Heart, and the only female general officer in any branch of the Armed Forces to be a recipient.

F-16 pilot Andrews retired from the Air Force as a colonel in June 2010.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-65105">
    SFC (Ret.) Daniel J. Stamaris Jr

    Good article, but you have one major fact incorrect. Rhonda was not the most critically injured. Althougth she had two broken arms and an injured knee she could walk with assistance from Troy.

    My situation was much, much worse.
    Most of the bones in my left leg were broken to include my foot, ankle, Tibula, Fibula, torn posterior ligaments in my knee, a shattered femur, broken and separated pelvis, broken ribs
    and other internal injuries along with cuts, scrapes, bruises and skin torn from my lower legs.

    Later, after repatriation it was found that I had bone fragments within 1-2 milimeters of my main femoral artery. Needless to say, the Iraqis were not too careful with the way I was moved and it is a miracle that those fragments didn’t shift and severe my artery. I was so badly injured that the Iraqis left me to die on two occasions; the second time over night in 40-50 degree weather beside a road (tracks in the sand) in the middle of nowhere. I was unable to sit up let alone walk and was totally at the mercy of the enemy.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-65185">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Thank you for giving readers first-hand insights from one of the key participants in these events.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-66551">

    Interesting to hear this story again. At the time Bengal 15 was launched the Battalion was performing deep attacks and the battalion commander and S-3 were forward. The decision to launch was made by the assistant S3 with the agreement of the air crew and Alpha Company Commander. The UH60 was following two AH64 Apache gunships so the operation was a flight of three. We had done many deep operations during the war but none with as little planning as this mission. Something not mentioned was the recovery operation approved the 29th of February where a mechanized infantry company from the 24th Division with overwatch from our battalion moved forward following the ceasefire and recovered the bodies of our fallen comarades. You see the cease fire went into effect the night Bengal 15 went down and we were not allowed to launch an effort to find our crew that evening. Dan, glad to hear you are well. Bob Porter “Bengal 16”

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-69139">
    Dr. Shakir Jawad

    Mr. Stamaris, I was the Iraqi Orthopedic surgeon who assisted you when you were in captivity! I was on the surgical team who fixed your fractures and I agree that both of you and BG Cornum were severely injured but your injuries were more life threatening, specially your femoral fracture which was open and severely comminuted . I am glad you made it back home safely. I established contact with BG Cornum since 2003 and we are friends now.
    I remember our conversation before your surgery and can remind you of it if we reconnect.
    I live in the USA now and if you see this comment and would like to get back in touch please put a note here, it will be my extreme pleasure to talk to you after all these years.
    Thank you

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-85906">

    Mr. Stamaris,

    On Feb. 27, 1991, my brother, WO1 David G. Plasch, was a pilot of a Blackhawk that was also shot down by the Republican Guard. I was informed that these two incidents would be confused during the Persian Gulf War. Would you have an information on my brother’s helicopter and crew, as well as what happened?

    Thank you for your service to our country – you are a true hero.

    Lynn Ross

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-141880">
    SFC Robert W. Betterton, Jr.

    SFC Stamaris,
    I’m sorry you felt the need to correct the story in regards to who was more seriously injured. To those of us who make a point of knowing about our heroes and thier sacrifice your actions that day are secure in our memory, and your valor celebrated by all who serve.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-142012">
    Robert F. Dorr

    The purpose of this site is to provide accurate information about military matters including accurate information about those who made important sacrifices for our country. We have a high standard and try to maintain it: and if a factual error occurs we do our best to correct it. It is always helpful to receive constructive suggestions from friends like SFC Betterton, one of “those of us who make a point of knowing about our heroes.” Any errors in the several articles that include SFC Stamaris appearing in various publications with my by-line are my responsibility. I hope to become “one of those who make a point of knowing about our heroes” I’ve only been at it since 1955 and so far my achievements are limited to seventy-five published books, about ten thousand magazine articles and about five thousand newspaper columns covering all of our nation’s wars and members of all military service branches. I’ll try to do better. I would like to learn more from SFC Betterton and hope he will contact me directly to help me improve my skills. I’ll be contacting Lynn Ross because I think I can help there..

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-145488">

    Mr. Dorr,

    I look forward to hearing from you, and appreciate your work in bringing information of the Persian Gulf War to those affected by the loss of a loved one.

    Thank you,

    Lynn Ross

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-145493">
    Robert F. Dorr

    In the hope of being helpful, I’ve sent an e-mail message to Lynn Ross who as far as I can tell has never contacted me directly and previously left a message addressed not to me but to Sgt. Stamaris. (My contact information is all over the Internet). I’m probably being too sensitive but just a fortnight after my being told I’m not “one of those who make a point of knowing about our heroes,” it’s now being implied that I don’t answer the mail., In fact, I respond to every e-mail message, phone call and e-mail message I receive. On this site, the goal is communication and mutual support. Anyone who’d like to reach me is invited to do so. You’re always welcome to pick up the phone: (703) 264-8950. Thanks to all readers who took note of this important story from Operation Desert Storm.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-146260">

    Bob, Thank you for contacting me in regards to my quest to find out information regarding my brother that served in the Persian Gulf War. For us families that lost our loved ones in war, it’s heartwarming to know that there are people out there sharing their stories. Saying “Thank you” doesn’t seem enough but I hope you know how much your work means to us.

    Lynn Ross

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-147001">
    Daniel J Stamaris Jr

    Dr. Shakir Jawad,

    First of all I would like to thank you for being part of the surgical team who stabilized my femur and cared for me while I was in captivity.

    It was actually 22 years ago today that our Blackhawk was shot down and we who survived were captured.

    I just found your comment on this sight yesterday and was very excited about finding it. As you can imagine I do have many questions. I am looking forward to reconnecting with you after all these years.

    Hope to hear from you soon,

    Dan

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-149232">
    Shakir Jawad

    Dan,
    email me at shakiriq@yahoo.com
    So glad to hear from you!
    Shakir