Our Returning Troops: Combat Surgeon Relies on God's Healing Hands

Our Returning Troops: Combat Surgeon Relies on God's Healing Hands

A reunion with a patient he was sure had died assured Dr. Lee Warren that there were healing hands other than his own at work during his stint in Iraq.

Guideposts: Maj. Lee Warren, M.D., U.S. Air Force (ret)

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?

“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?”

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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.

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?

Then one night in 2010, Lisa and I were flipping through the channels on TV when we came across an HBO military drama. Soldiers screamed as their Humvee hit an IED.

My heart started pounding. I told Lisa I was okay, but for weeks afterward, I had nightmares.

A soldier dying on the operating table. The smell of burned flesh. Explosions. What was wrong with me? I was a neurosurgeon. I knew how the brain worked. Yet I couldn’t explain this. I felt like I was losing my mind.

One day, driving with Lisa, I stopped at a red light. A helicopter crossed above us. The next thing I knew, Lisa was saying, “Honey, are you all right?”

The driver behind us honked.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You stared at the helicopter through a green light,” she said.

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As soon as we got home, Lisa said, “Lee, you’re having nightmares. Now you’re zoning out. What’s wrong?”

I felt ashamed. Confused. But I knew there was no way I was going to be able to brush this off. “I was waiting for that chopper to turn,” I said. “I thought it was going to land on the highway so I could operate on whoever was inside.”

“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “But you need to write down what happened to you. You can’t keep all this bottled up inside.”

Still I tried. I asked God to give me peace, but my nightmares and anxiety only grew worse. Why hadn’t I been able to do more for my patients? Why had I failed them?

At the hospital one day, I bumped into a psychiatrist friend. “Do you have a minute?” I asked. We grabbed some coffee in the doctors’ lounge and I told him everything I’d been dealing with.

“What you’re describing are symptoms of PTSD,” he said.

“How can I have PTSD?” I asked. “I wasn’t in combat.”

“But you were mortared and you never knew when the next attack would come, right? And you saw some pretty horrible things. That’s a lot to process. What kind of counseling did you get when you came home?”

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