Doc wounded in Iraq speaks out about combat trauma
MILWAUKEE—Dr. Ken Lee lives every day with reminders of a suicide car bombing: a crescent-shaped scar on his temple, thumbs that don't work correctly, constant headaches, and legs and arms that always feel like they're on fire.
The attack in Baghdad nearly killed the Wisconsin National Guard's chief medical officer, leaving him with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that the slightest provocation sent him into a furniture-smashing rage -- even as he worked to diagnose and heal fellow veterans back home.
Lee eventually learned to live with his nightmares. Now as the last American troops leave Iraq, he's using his unique experience -- as a doctor, patient and combat veteran -- to wage a new battle to call attention to the effects of combat trauma that will be with veterans for years to come.
"I can tell my son that his dad was right in the middle of it," Lee said. "I was part of the process to make it better."
Lee, 46, emigrated from South Korea with his family when he was a child. After graduating from medical school in Milwaukee, he became a physician in the Wisconsin National Guard and landed a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs, working as a spinal cord specialist in Milwaukee.
He had just been promoted to head of spinal cord treatment when he got the call in November 2003 to head to Iraq. He left his wife and two young children and shipped out in command of Company B of the 118th Medical Battalion.
Lee treated high-value U.S. prisoners that included Saddam Hussein. He visited the deposed dictator twice to treat a sore wrist. Lee described Hussein as an educated, pleasant man who spoke decent English -- but probably understood more than he let on.
The worst moments came during the Fallujah offensive as exhausted medics tried to save badly wounded Marines.
"We're seeing death in front of us," he said. "We kept absorbing it until it wasn't healthy. Some stopped eating. Some cried. I would lock myself in my room. I couldn't get hold of this feeling of despair."
Then, in September 2004, Lee made the mistake that changed his life.
He was leading a convoy when he spotted soldiers removing a bomb up ahead. Rather than speeding around them, Lee felt safe enough to stop the vehicles, climb out and help guard the rear.
Suddenly, he heard the screech of rubber on pavement. A Buick was bearing down on them. As Lee raised his rifle, the driver detonated his explosives. An orange ball of flame rolled toward him in slow motion and knocked him backward under a car.
When Lee came to, the world was red. His head was split open, and blood was pouring into his eyes. Medics performed life-saving surgery.
During months of rehabilitation back in Washington, he thought about how medical teams could better detect PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, the wounds that have defined the Iraq War. Lee offered ideas to a group at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, suggesting that screening begin as soon as the first symptoms appeared.
When he finally returned home, nothing felt right. He sat alone while his wife went to work and children went to school. For one miserable year, little things like the sound of one of his kids dropping a toy enraged him. He often retreated to the basement, where at one point he smashed the family's extra dining set. He drank himself to sleep in hopes of blocking out nightmares.
But at work, he dealt with everyone else's problems with a smile, and he excelled. He became the Wisconsin National Guard's state surgeon in 2008.
At home, Lee was on the brink of divorce. One day, while playing with his 10-year-old daughter, she commented that he never smiled anymore. Lee cried.
"I just didn't want to believe I had" PTSD, he said. "Nobody does."
Since then, he has resolved to be happy. He started thinking of the day the bomb went off as his "alive day," the day he didn't die. He celebrated it with his family by going out to eat or doing some other fun activity. At work, he continued to spread the word about detecting PTSD and brain injuries.
The Defense Department estimates that nearly 213,000 military personnel have suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2000.
An earlier report by the Rand Corp. estimated that 300,000 veterans of both conflicts suffered post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Less than half had sought treatment for PTSD over the preceding year, and nearly 60 percent of those reporting a probable brain injury weren't evaluated by a physician for one.
Army protocol requires soldiers returning from overseas to undergo a health assessment when they get back and again after they've been home for several months. Lee took that a step further in Wisconsin, sending medical teams to demobilization points to check on returning units as soon as they hit the ground.
"When you come home, it's hidden," said Lee, bespectacled with dark hair mowed into a crew-cut. "Why don't we do all these guys when they come back, instead of doing it when they walk into your office?"
He's also traveled the country lecturing on how combat trauma can be mental as well as physical, displaying photographs of his wounds and sharing his struggles.
As a spinal specialist, Lee doesn't treat PTSD or brain injuries directly, but he's earned a new level of respect from veterans. Many who aren't even his patients seek him out to talk.
Gus Sorenson of Sturtevant, Wis., lost the use of his legs in a 1970 car crash just days after returning from Vietnam. He has seen Lee for years and noticed a change after the doctor returned from Iraq.
"I think the word is `empathy,'" Sorenson said. "He was the patient. That experience helped the learning process. Other vets can relate to that."
Lee still can't remember appointments unless he emails them to himself. He can walk, but he has almost no feeling in his legs except a constant burning. His thumbs don't bend properly because the blast apparently jammed them against his rifle grips.
Sometimes he wakes up to find bloody spots on the sheets as tiny shards of shrapnel work their way out of his body. He's worried that his kids are still terrified of him, and he still suffers from flashbacks and nightmares.
Even after the U.S. withdrawal is complete, the U.S. will spend decades dealing with psychologically scarred veterans, Lee said.
"We have a product that comes back from war," he said. "We have to have a system to take care of it."