American Combat Surgeon Returns from Iraq War Zone and Seeks Healing for PTSD

Combat surgeon Dr. Lee Warren treated countless patients in Iraq. When he returned home from the war, he found he needed healing for himself.


Article Summary: 
Combat surgeon Dr. Lee Warren treated countless patients in Iraq. When he returned home from the war, he found he needed healing for himself.

Dr. Lee Warren was raised in a small town in Oklahoma and went to a legalistic church. He struggled with Christianity because he would read the bible and see grace but go to church and hear judgment. He was taught that if you are good and follow rules then things will go well in your life. Lee tried to live according to the proposed guidelines but his life would be far from perfect. As he grew older he faced more and more hardships that constantly diminished his faith in God. He tried to take control of his life by working hard in school and was offered a full ride to med school through the United States Air Force. He took that opportunity and became neurosurgeon at a military hospital. He married and they had three children. On the outside, Lee's life appeared to be successful and healthy but underneath the surface things were falling apart. His 16-year old marriage was failing - only held together for their children, his faith in God was diminishing, and he was mourning the death of his hero – his grandfather. Lee's life was out of control and he couldn't get a handle on it. To make matters worse, Lee received new orders from the Air Force in 2004. He would deploy for 120-days as a combat surgeon at the most mortared base in Iraq at that time.

In Iraq, Lee faced many horrifying situations. The base he was at was mortared by the enemy so many times that they had a sign outside that said, "Days Since last Mortar Attack__" and the "Days" was scratched out and replaced with "Hours." When mortars and rockets were not assaulting them, Lee was working around the clock doing brain surgery on the wounded. The hospital was a group of tents and many times they didn't have the adequate staff or equipment that they needed. He treated American Soldiers, Iraqi's, and even terrorists. While treating a terrorist he says that, "…at that moment, I wanted him to suffer. As if watching him hurt would somehow make me feel better about everything…" He goes on to say, "True, [patient number] 2137 was an enemy, and he had done terrible things. But it wasn't my job to punish him. My job as a doctor was to help him survive so that others could mete out justice. His reckoning would come if he survived. And, I believed, even if he didn't survive. I made the decision right then: I was not going to lose myself to this war."

Lee treated countless numbers of patients during his time in Iraq and saw many live and many die. One patient, Paul Statzer, stood out to him more than anyone. Paul was severely wounded by an IED explosion and Lee recounts him being the most injured human being that he has every seen that didn't die. They almost didn't bring him into surgery because of the severity of his wounds. Lee was able to put him back together and sent him to a better facility in Germany. He called Statzer's father to inform him that he did not believe he would survive the trip. Statzer's father responded saying that he knew that his son would live by the grace of God. Years later, Lee would find his file because for some reason it was the only named file from his work in Iraq, since they only used numbers to ID patients. Lee followed up with Statzer's father and discovered that Statzer was alive and functioning far beyond anything he could have anticipated. Lee says, "I was stunned. Healing Paul had been far beyond my abilities. But not God's."

While Lee faced many harrowing situations at war he also grew in his faith in God. One day he was angry because he could not communicate with his children via phone. His wife had broken the news to their children that they were getting a divorce and he had a hard time getting anyone to answer the phone when he called. He left his room to go pick some things up and decided not to wear his body armor because the mortar strikes hadn't happened in a couple of days. As he was walking across a field in only gym shorts and t-shirt he felt the concussion of a mortar strike. He was stranded out in the open with no bunker for safety. He hid behind a 12-foot T-barrier for over an hour as mortars and rockets were being launched. He says, "I had no place to hide, and never before had I felt so exposed, so powerless. But in the chaos, I found a moment of clarity. The powerlessness demonstrated to me that my plan to control how my kids would react to me was just as irrelevant and ineffective as my wish that the terrorists trying so hard to kill everyone on base that day would just go away." He goes on to say that, "The mental clarity that resulted was stunning to me, and the list of things I could not control played across my mind like movie credits rolling up the screen." "…At the end of the list of all the things I couldn't do, I finally understood the one thing I could do: have faith that whatever God intended to do would be best for me and for my kids."

Lee returned home from Iraq with a stronger faith in God but his war was far from over. He finalized his divorce with his wife and re-established connection with his children. He finished up his remaining time with the Air Force, opened a private practice for neurosurgery, and got remarried. Although the barrage of mortars and patients ceased, he wrestled with the trauma from his experiences. He says, "I felt as if I were going crazy. Here I was, safe and sound –– things were good, in both my practice and family life. I was happy, healthy, and out of the military. I had never shot anyone or been in combat. Why was I still tormented?" Lee struggled with nightmares, zoning out, and was just not feeling like himself. He says, "One day as I was driving somewhere with Lisa, I stopped at a red light. A helicopter crossed the road above us. The next thing I remember is Lisa saying, "Honey, are you all right?" I turned to her. My heart was racing, and the driver of the car behind us was honking his horn. "What happened?" I said. "You stared at that helicopter all the way through a green light," she said. After meeting with a friend who was a psychiatrist he was informed that he had symptoms of PTSD and was prescribed to journal his memories, unpack his bags from Iraq, and tell his wife everything he went through there. With a solid foundation of faith that was built at war, Lee followed the prescription and was able to overcome the effects of his PTSD. "I had to go off to war, experience horrible things, and be bombed almost into oblivion to learn the simple truth of what Chaplain W said: "Pray more, worry less, and let God handle the rest."

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