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This combat surgeon packed his painful memories of Iraq away. Forever, he thought
Paul Statzer. For a second, I thought about writing his name down on the questionnaire and leaving it at that. It was April 2005. My four-month deployment at the 332nd Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base in Iraq was almost over.
Four months. It was the maximum time the Air Force believed a combat surgeon could hold up under the stress. This last bit of paperwork was all that stood between me and going home.
“Have you been in combat or been exposed to situations in which you felt your life was in danger?
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“Have you seen or been exposed to things you feel may be difficult for you to forget or which you feel may be troubling to you in the future?”
Sergeant Paul Statzer. Of all the carnage I’d witnessed, his was the case that still haunted me. I could picture him lying on the operating table in the hospital tent, the left side of his face and forehead stripped away by a bomb, part of his brain exposed, shrapnel embedded deep within.
I’d had to remove half his frontal lobe before I’d managed to stabilize him enough to be flown to the military hospital in Germany. I’d called his father in Pennsylvania to tell him what happened. It seemed like the least I could do, but even then I felt like I’d failed.
I couldn’t get Mr. Statzer to understand that there was no way his son would be coming home alive. He’d even tried to comfort me. Denial. Sometimes it’s the first line of defense.
As a brain surgeon specializing in trauma, I’d been sent to Iraq to save lives. But it was impossible to feel good about anything I’d done there. I was one of 20 surgeons at the hospital. Soldiers arrived in waves, 20 or 30 at a time, arms and legs shredded, massive head injuries, faces no longer recognizable.
In early 2005, the Balad base was the most heavily mortared spot in Iraq. It seemed forsaken even by God.
Did I really need to fill out a form for the Air Force to understand the horror I’d witnessed? I checked yes for each question, not bothering to use the space provided for further explanation. No one went over the questionnaire with me.
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The next day a nurse checked my vitals and drew some blood. She signed a form saying I was healthy enough to go home.
Before my deployment I’d worked as a neurosurgeon at an Air Force medical center in San Antonio, Texas, for four years, in exchange for the military putting me through med school. I was grateful and proud to serve my country. I’d given it my all, even at the cost of my marriage.
Now I was looking forward to the next chapter, starting my own practice, a new life.
I shipped home four black trunks full of memories–my uniforms, pieces of shrapnel and bullets I’d removed, a flash drive with thousands of photos and digital CT scans, without the patients’ names.
I thought I might one day use them for research. But I never opened the trunks. I stacked them in the back of my garage.
A few months after coming home I opened a neurosurgery practice in Auburn, Alabama. In May 2006 I was remarried, to a woman I knew from church. Lisa was smart (soon she was managing my practice), nurturing, funny. I’d never known anyone so easy to talk to.
But the one thing I never talked to her about was my time in Iraq. Our life together was good. Why dig up the past?
Lee’s memoir, No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home From the Iraq War, was released in May. For more information, visit his website.