From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

God Bless the U.S.A.

It was time for me to come forward and sing, with the newly revised video of “God Bless the U.S.A.” flickering on the enormous screen behind me. Medals commemorating our space heroes and the men we’ve lost in battle had been pinned on my white jacket, which has U.S.A. emblazoned down each sleeve. I glanced out into the vast expanse of upturned faces.

Out there among the sea of military notables was a remarkable lady. Major Rhonda Leah Cornum, an army flight surgeon, had been released with the other POWs early in March. She had walked down the plane’s ramp with both arms in slings, evidence of the grinding crash that she had been lucky to survive. Major Cornum had served with the 229th Battalion out of Fort Rucker. In Saudi Arabia, they were attached to the 101st Aviation Brigade, and she was always eager to volunteer for any duty whenever it came up. The airmen she worked with respected her courage and ability, considering her one of their own. Among themselves, they called her “Doc Cornum,” and there were times when they were plenty worried about her safety.

Then one night an F-16 was shot down by antiaircraft guns over Iraqi territory. The pilot was reporting his position as his plane headed in. Suddenly an explosion told the listening pilots that he was down.

“There’s a chance that he got out,” they hoped. A search and rescue crew was needed in case the pilot was alive. As usual, the major was quick to volunteer. So she climbed aboard the Black Hawk, a lift helicopter that transports personnel and equipment, and headed with the SAR team for the downed aviator.

As the Black Hawk reached deep behind enemy lines, volleys of shots flew up from the dark sand drifts below.

“We’re taking heavy fire!” the chopper’s pilot called out.

There was a short silence, then a deafening boom!

The helicopter had careened headfirst into the rockstrewn desert sand. Its fuselage crumbled, cracking almost completely in half.

“We’ve got a Hawk down!” shouted one of the pilots who was monitoring the ongoing battle.

Information was sketchy as the word filtered back to the 220th and the 101st. Her comrades were concerned about the whole crew, but mostly they worried about the major.

“Doc’s down! Doc Cornum’s down in Iraq!”

“Man! She’s got no business being behind enemy lines!”

“She shouldn’t be out there. But she’s the type that’d do anything . . . so gung ho.” It was spoken almost like a rebuke from a friend who felt especially protective.

“Doc volunteers for everything!” her buddies agreed, afraid that this was one dangerous mission too many for their friend.

Then a report came back: “Looks like nobody made it.”

“Oh God! SAR better get out there!”

When rescue planes did get to the crash site, they found an appalling sight. The bodies of five crew members were strewn near the remnants of their crushed Black Hawk. But there was no sign of the other three.

The SAR team started searching through the wreckage.

“Their flight gear’s here!” yelled one of them. “It’s intact! And there’s no blood! They’ve got to be alive!”

After rummaging through the debris, he said, “And someone’s gone through the first-aid kit! They must have been taken by the Iraqis, but we can’t be sure.”

After identifying the bodies of those who were killed in action, military officials listed Major Cornum as one of the three who had vanished, an MIA. Americans who had been shocked with the capture of our first female POW, Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, felt the uneasiness of knowing that Saddam’s forces were, in all probability, holding another of our military women.

With the abrupt end to the war, it was a relief to see our POWs set free, and we were overjoyed to learn that Major Cornum and the other two crew members from the Black Hawk were among them. The returning POWs were in better condition than we had feared. When a reporter asked the army doctor, “How did you hold up during your ordeal?” she answered, “I held up fine until we were coming home on the plane. I had heard about the video for the troops, and I was worried that when they played ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ I wouldn’t be able to keep it together.”

That night in our “Welcome Home, America” audience, Major Rhonda Cornum’s head tilted forward as the words of the song floated out into the hall and ABC’s cameras caught her lightly brushing aside the tears.

“And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.”

Over 140 allied personnel were killed in the Persian Gulf. In comparison to other wars, the number is small. But, on a personal level, just one casualty is a very great sacrifice.

“And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. . . .”

The cymbals clashed, and with the words “stand up,” it seemed as though everyone in the whole audience rose to their feet. I looked out on a sea of faces and, by the reflected glow of the stage lights, saw thousands of forms tightly holding hands, their arms raised high above their heads.

“’Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land—”

My clenched fist hit my chest, then struck the air above my head.

“God bless the U.S.A.”

Then I called out to the standing, cheering crowd, “Do you feel the pride?”

Shrill whistles and shouts of “Yeah!” answered my question.

Then, walking across the stage, I continued, “Our servicemen and women are here tonight—and are out there at home along with the rest of the nation, watching this tribute to our champions of freedom. And I want them to see some of the faces in tonight’s audience.

“Sing it with me, one more time!” Then glancing back at the band I asked, “Guys, would you help me?”

“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

As this final chorus rang out again, taking over the evening, everyone rose to their feet again, searching for the words, their arms still reaching upward. The moment glowed with their exhilaration to be cheering an American triumph. I jumped down from the stage and began walking through the aisle, out into the midst of the singing military men and women, while they swayed to the drum’s strong cadence.

“Come on, y’all!” I urged.

One after another, voices joined in, singing with soft timidity at first, then increasing in volume until they sounded out with conviction and pride.

“And I won’t forget the men who die d who gave that right to me.”

Because of sacrifices in the past and the people in the emerging democracies who are demanding their individual freedom, this world is changing fast. The will to be free persists. America has founded a legacy that will be victorious, bringing all of us together.

Here, in Los Angeles, flags were waving and the responding voices grew louder, unlocking emotions usually held tightly inside.

Like a scene viewed through a wide-angle lens, the song took over, its volume increasing in a steady crescendo. Then I was completing the final words. As they pounded down in a majestically deliberate beat, the patriotic strength of America reverberated through the night, celebrating a landmark victory in defense of freedom.

“And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,

’Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land—

God bless the U.S.A.”

Lee Greenwood

God Bless the U.S.A. by Lee Greenwood and Gwen McLin, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. and MCA Music Publishing.

“God Bless the U.S.A.” Words and Music by Lee Greenwood. Copyright ©1984 by Music Corporation of America, Inc. and Songs of PolyGram International, Inc. All Rights Controlled and Administered by Music Corporation of America, Inc. International Copyright Secured. Used By Permission. All Rights Reserved.

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