A War Zone of the Soul
Dr. W. Lee Warren’s life as a neurosurgeon in a trauma center began to unravel long before he shipped off to serve the Air Force in Iraq in 2004. When he traded a comfortable if demanding practice in San Antonio, Texas, for a ride on a C-130 into the combat zone, he was already reeling from months of personal struggle.
At the 332nd Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Warren realized his experience with trauma was just beginning. In his 120 days in a tent hospital, he was trained in a different specialty—surviving over a hundred mortar attacks and trying desperately to repair the damages of a war that raged around every detail of every day. No place was safe, and the constant barrage wore down every possible defense, physical or psychological.
One day, clad only in a T-shirt, gym shorts, and running shoes, Warren was caught in the open while round after round of mortars shook the earth and shattered the air with their explosions, stripping him of everything he had been trying so desperately to hold on to.
Warren’s story is an example of how a person can go from a place of total loss to one of strength, courage, and victory. Whether you are in the midst of your own crisis of faith, failed relationship, financial struggle, or illness, you will be inspired to remember that how you respond determines whether you survive—spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes physically.
It is the beginning of a long journey home.
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About the Author
W. Lee Warren, MD, is a board-certified neurosurgeon and patented inventor. He lives in Auburn, Alabama, with his wife and business partner, Lisa Warren, and their children. Dr. Warren has a BS in Biochemistry from Oklahoma Christian University and an MD from the University of Oklahoma. He practices minimally invasive brain and spinal surgery, develops new technologies with his wife through their company, Warren Innovation, and is an affiliate professor of biomedical sciences at Auburn University. In his spare time he plays guitar, writes songs, and recently completed his first novel, Kill Switch. Visit Lee at www.wleewarrenmd.com.
Read an Excerpt
No Place to Hide
a brain surgeon's long journey home from the Iraq War
By W. Lee Warren
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 W. Lee Warren
All rights reserved.
MAINTAIN CONTROL, LEE
Sit on your body armor on the flight in."
The C–130 pilot laughed. It was December 28, 2004, and we were in the Base Exchange, or BX, at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. He looked at his colleague and said, "The major here's never been in Iraq, sir."
The shorter one wore silver oak leaves on his flight suit—a lieutenant colonel. And like the pilot who'd just given me the advice, he also wore pilot's wings. He leaned closer and said, "He said you should sit on your Kevlar. As opposed to wearing it. The bullets come in from below."
They walked away chuckling, no doubt at the bewilderment on my face.
I checked my watch: 1600 hours. Four p.m. Eight hours to go.
I shrugged their advice off uneasily and continued checking off the last few items from the list of things that I'd been told—since arriving here two days before from San Antonio—I would need at my new deployment. Things that had not been on the official packing list but that others had found useful, such as earplugs for the plane ride I was waiting for.
The one that would deliver me to the war.
Earlier in the day I'd been told that my flight into Iraq would be delayed until tonight, due to a mortar attack on the runway at Balad Air Base, my destination.
Balad was also called Mortaritaville, because at that point in the war it was the most frequently mortared base in Iraq. An Army friend who'd been there had emailed me a couple of weeks before I left about dealing with mortars:
Don't worry too much about the mortars; that's like worrying about lightning. You can't control where they hit, and most of them don't blow up anyway. Worry more about the rockets.
His advice wasn't particularly comforting.
The two pilots I'd just spoken with in the BX delivered people like me to Balad and brought us out. I decided it would be wise to heed their advice about the body armor, although I didn't look forward to a four-hour flight sitting on the hard ceramic plates.
Later on at the DFAC—dining facility —I enjoyed enchiladas and tacos served by an Asian contractor in an Arab country. The jumble of out-of-place foods and faces struck me as funny, perhaps because I'd been traveling for two days and was filled with an equally jumbled mix of emotions. But as the time to report to the airfield approached, I stopped chuckling, regretting my decision to eat something spicy.
I wandered around Al Udeid, taking pictures of the strange sights—such as a Santa and snowman still on display from Christmas three days before. I spent a while in a lounge chair next to the Olympic-sized swimming pool, but since I couldn't swim in my DCU—desert camouflage uniform—I grew restless and moved on, my mind swirling with questions about what I was about to experience, what I'd just left behind, and what might be left of me in the end.
A chapel with an open front door seemed like a good place to sit awhile. I walked in and took off my shades, blinking in the dim light until my eyes adjusted. There in the front, shining like Excalibur in the stone, sat a guitar on a stand, with no one around to tell me no. I played and prayed and ordered my thoughts as I can do only when there are six strings under my fingers.
Far too soon, it was time to go. I stopped in the restroom to handle an acute case of nerves. Or Montezuma's revenge, more likely—a just repayment for my poor dining choice at such a stressful time. I washed my face in the sink and took a long look in the mirror.
My eyes held blood and tears, the result of sand in the Middle Eastern air and sorrow in my Midwestern heart. The man looking back at me didn't fit my self-image. I expected to see a two-hundred-five-pound blond brain surgeon. Instead, I saw a DCU-wearing Air Force major about to board a plane for the war in Iraq, wearing a leather holster and body armor and helmet like any soldier in the Army or Marines, looking ready for whatever may come. I knew better: The real me was a man driven nearly to his knees by life over the past few months, and he wasn't sure he could handle what he was about to face.
He was about to find out.
I gathered my things and myself and walked out into the surprisingly cold Qatari darkness to find the airport.
The military is infamous for its "hurry up and wait" bureaucratic inefficiencies, but I was surprised at how smoothly processing the orders of a hundred or so people and palletizing our duffel bags went. Maybe it was because I was distracted by filling out forms and helping pass bags around and checking gas masks and gear, but those were the fastest two hours I'd spent since I'd left the States the morning after Christmas. The last thing I did was sign my name on the wall of the hangar where we waited, a wall full of the signatures and call signs of hundreds of people who'd passed this way before. I found a little blank area and wrote:
Major W. Lee Warren, USAF, MC, 859 MSGS, Lackland AFB, TX. Combat Brain Surgeon.
And then it was time.
A master sergeant whose DCUs were far too starched and clean to have ever been in Iraq held a clipboard and shouted with a nasally New England accent, "Form a line, backs to the wall, wait for your name to be called." It sounded like, "FARMA LINE, BACKS TA THA WA, WATE FA YA NAYME TA BA CAA."
It must have been minutes, but it felt like years before I heard, "WARREN, WAYNE LEE JOONYA."
Like the others before me, I stepped forward, made a right face, and marched to the master sergeant.
He leaned close, squinted at my dog tags, and checked my name off his list. "Gaad bless ya, Maja."
"Thanks, Sergeant," I said, the last words I spoke in Qatar.
I stepped out of the hangar and followed the line of people to our waiting C–130. We filed in, followed instructions about how to fasten our belts, and were told not to use any flashlights until we were off the plane in Iraq. I sat on a hard metal bench shoulder-to-shoulder with the men next to me. No one spoke. About two feet in front of me was another bench, equally crowded with people facing us.
When we were all on board, a forklift drove on, carrying pallets of all of our gear. I watched as the loadmasters lashed down the pallets, fascinated with their skill and technique and wondering how many other people these guys had packed off to war—and how many of them had come home. When I realized that the pallets had now sealed off our only way off this airplane, I had another thought: I'm really going to war.
As soon as the door shut, the lights went out. The last thing I saw before darkness enveloped me was a stain on my DCU pants from the vanilla latte I'd spilled on my leg after I'd stopped at the coffee shop next to the DFAC on my way to the chapel. Nice, I thought, I'm flying into battle smelling of Starbucks. Very GI Joe. No wonder the Army guys make fun of us—they call us the "Chair Force."
I'd never been in the Middle East before landing at Al Udeid, and I wasn't impressed with its blowing sands, desert temperatures, ubiquitous brownness, and featureless terrain. But Al Udeid Air Base was the gateway to everything I would experience of war. I would land there again in four months, at the end of my deployment. By that time, my opinion of the base would have changed drastically. Al Udeid with its swimming pools, computer lounges, and coffee shops is a much nicer place the second time you land there because it's so much better than any place you've been since the first time.
The C–130's engines roared to life, and for the next few hours I heard nothing but those engines and my thoughts. Sleep was out of the question.
I thought about the things I was leaving behind: Three children who knew their dad was going to the war in Iraq but were blissfully unaware that their parents' sixteen-year-old marriage was essentially over. My only brother, struggling with a life-threatening stroke. And just three weeks before, my hero—my grandfather—had died.
Flying through the darkness, I realized that I was completely unknown on the airplane. Although my name tag said Warren, and one of the other passengers was the surgical tech Nate from my hospital back in the States, no one knew me. I was part of a bay full of cargo, implements of the war machine of the United States. I was Warren, W, 45SF—the Air Force code for neurological surgeon.
I can't adequately describe how lonely I felt then, one inventoried item in a plane full of war parts, each interchangeable when they were lost or broken or had served their appointed time. I thought about the bullets and missiles I was sure were about to blow us out of the sky, and for a few minutes I hyperventilated and thought I was having a panic attack. Then I heard an old voice in my head, telling me to get a grip.
The voice was a memory from Pittsburgh in 1996, from the operating room at Allegheny General Hospital. I was a second-year resident in neurosurgery, operating that day with Dr. Parviz Baghai, a Persian immigrant and brilliant surgeon who for some reason took me under his wing early in my training.
A man was brought to the emergency room after a car accident. His head scan showed a massive brain hemorrhage, so I called Dr. Baghai, who told me to take the patient to the OR and start draining the hemorrhage. Dr. Baghai arrived just as I was removing a large portion of the patient's skull. Then, using a scalpel, I began to open the dura, the brain's thick, leathery covering. The patient's brain rapidly swelled out of the confines of his skull, something I had read about but never seen. I didn't know what to do—the brain was squeezing out of the dural opening like toothpaste. I said, "This guy's going to die."
Dr. Baghai, just slipping his hand into his glove as the circulating nurse tied his gown, reached over and dipped his hand into a bowl of sterile saline solution on the instrument table. "Watch this," he said.
Dr. Baghai placed his wet hand on the protruding brain and firmly pushed it back into the man's head.
"Put your hand on mine, gently," he said.
I placed my hand over Dr. Baghai's, gauging the pressure he applied. He looked at me. His brown eyes, all I could see of his face, held a hint of anticipation.
With our hands still in place holding the brain, Dr. Baghai took a small catheter in his other hand, closed his eyes for a moment, and then slipped the catheter between our fingers, deep into the man's brain. He drained about 20 ccs of cerebrospinal fluid, which relaxed the brain enough for it to stay within the head. Dr. Baghai then calmly removed the hematoma, closed the wound, and stepped away from the table.
"Never let the brain roar out at you like that," he said. "Be prepared for swelling, and handle it immediately or prevent it. You have to maintain control, Lee."
The patient did not die. He eventually fully recovered. Every time I have seen Parviz Baghai in the fifteen years since, he says the same thing in his crisp British English: "Do you still think that guy's going to die?"
The plane's vibrations began to seriously challenge my wisdom in having both coffee and Mexican food before the flight. It was utterly dark, I was utterly miserable, and I couldn't stop hearing Parviz Baghai's advice, "You have to maintain control."
Control had been the biggest issue in my life for the past several years. During the one-hundred-twenty-hour work weeks of my residency, I had acknowledged to myself that any semblance of a loving relationship at home had become playacting, purely for the benefit of the kids. That was the only thing keeping our marriage together—that, and the teaching of my parents' church that the only thing more sure to send you straight to hell than outright blasphemy was divorce. I had no tools to deal with interpersonal conflict because I was raised to believe that if you were really a Christian you never fought, you were always happy, and you never had problems. So instead of trying to discuss my feelings, I just smiled. Psychiatrists call this incongruity, when you display one emotion and feel another. In retrospect, it would have been frustrating and painful to be married to me during those years.
I satisfied my need for control at work. But by learning to have a white-knuckled grip on every aspect of my life outside my home, I became a miserable person. Only nobody knew it. I kept my Happy Christian with a Perfect Marriage face in a jar by the door like Eleanor Rigby, wore it when anyone could see, and never talked about it.
And so as I heard the echoes of the advice of my mentor, Dr. Baghai, about maintaining control, I was hurtling through the air, strapped into an airplane on a nonstop flight into the unknown, and I was terrified.
I felt nauseated. I really regretted the coffee now, and we were only halfway through the flight. I reminded myself to breathe. I checked my pulse along with my faith: heart racing, faith plummeting. In fact, my faith had been on life support recently, and my prayers over the past few months had seemed weak and ineffective. I had not stopped believing in God, but I was almost convinced that he no longer believed in me.
The guy to my left was young, probably twenty or so, much taller than my five-foot-nine. He had huge arms; I figured he was a mechanic or something that required great strength. He's a lot stronger than me, I thought. Why are they sending a couch potato like me off to war?
To my right was a man about my size. I had noticed his rank before the lights went out: lieutenant colonel. He had the look of a professional, and even in the darkness his calm presence told me he was less scared than I was. That makes no sense, I thought. How can I feel someone else's fear level in the dark?
I realized what I was doing. My old insecurities were bubbling to the surface, and my thoughts were just a symptom. I've always secretly believed that everyone around me was smarter than me, better at the task at hand. I think this is one of the reasons I've been successful professionally—I've been so afraid that I would fail and that everyone would finally realize I wasn't really smart enough to be there. The joke would be on me. Now, on the C–130, I found myself doing it again.
A wild, erratic movement of the aircraft, followed by another, and then another in quick succession, shook me out of my thoughts. I had been told by other C–130 pilots that they frequently took ground fire when flying through Iraq, and that they made evasive maneuvers as they began to descend prior to landing. Even with the warning, I wasn't ready for this.
Were we being shot at? Was someone trying to kill me? I didn't know—but I do know that the pilot gave us a ride I've never experienced on any roller coaster. Several people vomited, and the smell of whatever they had eaten filled the cabin.
When we finally landed, we taxied for what seemed like hours. My heart was beating out of my chest as I imagined stepping off the plane into a hail of bullets as the base was overrun by screaming, bearded Al Qaeda terrorists on black horses, their scimitars and AK–47s flashing in the light of tracer and machine-gun fire. That was the first time I realized how long it had been since I'd slept, and I reminded myself that I was landing on a very secure American military installation and not in the middle of some movie about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
The engines kept running as the C–130's rear door lowered, and I could see the headlights of a forklift driving on to remove the pallets of gear. Someone climbed on board and instructed us to stand and form two lines. We followed him out of the plane and into Iraq. I looked down in the darkness and saw my boots on the ground of a foreign nation at a time of war.
I was hungry, needed to use the bathroom, and felt terribly alone. But at the same time, I was fascinated that the Bible says God chose this very area—the zone between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—as the place to begin human history. The canopy of stars twinkling above me would have looked the same to Adam and Eve peering up from Eden.
My second thought was that Iraqis had built the concrete runway on which I stood. Americans had fought to capture this base at the start of the war last year.
Three buses waited on the Tarmac. I thought they were for us. They were not. As we approached, we were ordered to form two lines and wait. I could see the same forklift loading gear onto the plane from which we just exited, and as we got to the buses, I saw that they were filled with fully armored and armed troops. They looked so young and innocent, but their faces conveyed no emotion; they were robots with grenades and machine guns, their eyes clear and jaws set. The plane that had delivered me safely to the base was about to take these robot-soldiers off to some less-safe place, like a bus hauling one person home and another to work. The engines never even shut down.
Excerpted from No Place to Hide by W. Lee Warren. Copyright © 2014 W. Lee Warren. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Lt. Gen. (Ret.) C. Bruce Green, MD 9
1 Maintain Control, Lee 13
2 Just a Little Bomb; Nobody Died 23
3 Everywhere I Looked, I Saw Dirt 33
4 No Skull Bone on Left, Handle Carefully 51
5 For the First Time in My Career, I Didn't Know What to Do 63
6 I'm Not the Only One Getting Shot at Here 71
7 I Can Still See His Face and Smell His Blood 81
8 Glasgow Coma Score of Seven 93
9 "Daddy, Come Home Right Now!" 103
10 The Iraqi Toddler 115
11 This Kid's Gonna Die, and It's My Fault 125
12 A Very Odd Skull 131
13 "Get That Cat Outta Here!" 137
14 The Night Vanias Family Was Shot 145
15 Plugged Rockets and Homemade Biological Weapons 151
16 They Were Still Screaming When the Choppers Landed 161
17 I Saw in 2137 Everything I Hated in the World 173
18 We'll All Get Through This Together 185
19 Purple Ink: The Mark of Freedom 191
20 Freezing to Death in a Muddy Hole 201
21 The American Soldier, the Terrorist, and the Blood Drive 211
22 Rose Is My Daughter's Age 221
23 His Grip Loosened and His Hand Dropped Out of Mine 229
24 Our Next Stop Was Abu Ghraib 237
25 Baghdad: A Beautiful, Broken Place 251
26 You Got to Keep Moving or You Get Hit, Bro 261
27 We Have a Special Patient Here Tonight 267
28 Not So Good Friday 279
29 Its Going to Take a Whole Series of Miracles 289
30 No Place to Hide 295
31 Saying Goodbye 301
32 And Then I Lost My Mind 315
33 Unpacking the Bags 327
34 Long Journey Home 337
Afterword Philip Yancey 343
What People are Saying About This
“As a combat brain surgeon, Lee Warren graphically and compassionately exposes the unspeakable horrors of our hellish war in Iraqhidden from all not there. For him physically and emotionally there was indeed no place to hide, but his descriptive eloquence elicits deep appreciation and respect for him and the thousands of others who have been scarred on our behalf.” Joseph C. Maroon, MD, Team Neurosurgeon, The Pittsburgh Steelers