Colonel Rhonda Cornum, Ph.D. MD
Medical Corps, United States Army
Prisoner of War
We all hope that no American serviceman, male or female, will be taken
prisoner. Historically however, the risk of capture is small but real in all conflicts.
Treatment of repatriated POWs has been discussed exhaustively, but has focused on men.
Women have represented a very small percentage of the military, and until recently, an
even smaller percentage of prisoners. Most of the information is probably equally
applicable to female as to male repatriated POWs, but there has been nothing written
specifically about the repatriation of women ex-POWs.
As the only woman ex-POW still on active duty, I would like to share my views on the
The primary concern of many health care providers, when caring
for a returning female POW, seems to be the possibility of sexual abuse. I believe this
emphasis on female sexual abuse is primarily cultural. I further believe this emphasis is
derived from concerns about potential psychological after-effects of sexual abuse, and
that it is based on the model of civilian women. It is vital to recognize that sexual
abuse in the context of the POW experience is very different, for several reasons.
- Women in the military are not necessarily representative of the "average"
American woman. A military career is still not considered a traditional path for women,
and women who choose a military career may have a different "willingness to take
risk" than women in the general population. They may not react like the
"average" woman in the civilian setting.
- Most women in the military recognize that they are engaged in a high-risk occupation,
and accept that there is a small but real risk of death and capture.
- Women in the military may have different priorities. For example, I was captured after
being wounded by small arms fire and involved in a very significant aircraft shoot-down.
My primary concerns were first, those that were life threatening (bleeding and internal
injuries), followed by those that could result in permanent disability (multiple long bone
fractures in my case). While I was subjected to an unpleasant episode of sexual abuse
during my captivity, 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
It is my opinion that sexual abuse should be considered just one of many potential
physical and psychological torture techniques, whether the subject is male or female.
The Total Soldier
Importantly, the health care provider encountering repatriated
POWs should evaluate their total condition, and not focus on any single aspect of
their condition unless it is obvious (broken bone, diarrhea, pregnant, etc).
The repatriated soldier (it is important to avoid the term
"patient") will tell you his or her primary concerns, and the health care system
should respond to those needs if at all possible.
On a practical level, deployed women may find it valuable to use a
method of birth control that does not require either daily input (the pill) or voluntary
use (condoms or diaphragms). I recommend the IUD, Norplant, or Depo-Provera, particularly
for women at higher risk, especially aircrew.
It is important to introduce this concept before deployment, as
it can be a social problem for monogamous women to suddenly begin a contraceptive program
if their spouse does not understand the risk issue.
The Typical Repatriated
Because the circumstances of captivity are so different, it is difficult
to describe a "typical" repatriated soldier.
Some have been subjected to prolonged isolation and others not. Some
have been physically abused and others not. Some have been held captive for a very long
time, while others have been held only a short time. Clinically, they should be approached
as individuals, with unique experiences and clinical needs.
Stresses of Captivity
While individual experiences vary, many common stresses of
captivity may need to be addressed. Among these* are the physical stresses of:
and the psychological stresses of:
Close long-term affiliation
* Textbook of Military Medicine, Office of the Surgeon General, United States
Army, The Prisoner of War, P. 435, 1995
Most former POWs will fully recover from these physical and
psychological stresses. Many will find a lasting emotional strength from their experience.
· Introduction ·
Medical Support of Women in Field
Environments · The Prisoner of War
Experience · Routine
Pap Smears ·
Human Papilloma Virus ·
Birth Control Pills ·
Vulvar Disease ·
Vaginal Discharge ·
Abnormal Bleeding ·
Menstrual Problems ·
Abdominal Pain ·
Urination Problems ·
Breast Problems ·
Sexual Assault ·
Normal Pregnancy ·
Abnormal Pregnancy ·
Normal Labor and Delivery ·
Problems During Labor and Delivery
· Care of the Newborn
Bureau of Medicine
Department of the Navy
2300 E Street NW
Obstetrics & Gynecology - 2nd Edition
The Health Care of Women in Military Settings
CAPT Michael John Hughey, MC, USNR
January 1, 2000
web version of Operational Obstetrics & Gynecology is provided by
The Brookside Associates
Medical Education Division. It contains original contents from the
official US Navy NAVMEDPUB 6300-2C, but has been reformatted for web access and
includes advertising and links that were not present in the original version.
This web version has not been approved by the Department of the Navy or the
Department of Defense. The presence of any advertising on these pages does not
constitute an endorsement of that product or service by either the Department of
Defense or the Brookside Associates. The Brookside Associates is a private
organization, not affiliated with the United States Department of Defense. All
material in this version is unclassified.
This formatting © 2006
Medical Education Division,
Brookside Associates, Ltd.
All rights reserved
Other Brookside Products