Army Staff Sgt. Chris Cook lies on his back on a Baghdad highway. Blood spills from his mouth and nose, and it won’t stop. He looks at his left foot, but something is wrong. Where his toes should be, he sees the heel of his boot, the leg twisted impossibly backward, the bones snapped in […]
Army Staff Sgt. Chris Cook lies on his back on a Baghdad highway. Blood spills from his mouth and nose, and it won’t stop. He looks at his left foot, but something is wrong. Where his toes should be, he sees the heel of his boot, the leg twisted impossibly backward, the bones snapped in half like pinewood.
Army medics rush to his side in what seems like slow motion. He can feel dozens of shrapnel wounds piercing his arms and legs. The smell of burning automobile fuel chokes the air around him. But he hears no sounds, just a dull echo of his own screams…
Cook sits bolt upright up in bed in his Mukwonago home. He claws frantically at his fiancée beside him. “Help me! Help me!” Every gruesome detail of the Sept. 12, 2004, explosion is replayed in his mind – the runaway car barreling toward him, the weight of his M16 as he raised it to fire, the face of the suicide bomber, his dark, trim goatee and blazing eyes, and finally, the explosion, a fireball that enveloped him in what felt like the end of everything.
For months after the car bombing, Cook blamed his commander, Lt. Col. Ken Lee, for almost getting him killed. Why the hell had Lee led their convoy of Humvees to the Green Zone that day and ordered them to stop, breaking the cardinal rule of military travel in Iraq and turning Cook and nine other soldiers into sitting ducks? He was angry at the commander, even though Lee, too, was wounded, riddled head to foot with shrapnel, one piece taking a chunk out of his knee, another ripping open his skull.
Cook’s resentment festered for a long time, and his nightmares played over and over again.
Yet Cook and Lee had so much that united them. Both were members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Medical Corps. Both were longtime civilian medical professionals before this, Lee as a rehab doctor at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee, Cook as an emergency room nurse at Waukesha Memorial Hospital. Both were well-prepared by that background to handle the medical trauma of war, yet surprised by the sheer tide of the wounded, the soldiers and Marines without hands or legs, crippled and eviscerated, left unrecognizable by roadside bombs.
Both had somehow experienced first-hand many of the most publicized chapters of the Iraq War, showing up Zelig-like at so many key points. They had treated troops near the insurgent stronghold Falluja. They had worked at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. They had been assigned to Camp Cropper, a top-secret prison where they met and treated deposed Iraqi “Deck of Cards” leaders such as Tariq Aziz, “Chemical Ali” and Saddam Hussein himself. And after getting wounded, they’d been sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which had gotten so much negative publicity for its handling of injured soldiers.
Now the two were suffering a common aftermath of the war, the condition once called shell shock or battle fatigue and now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Since 2003, some 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with the disorder, or about one of five returning service members. In May, newly disclosed Defense Department records revealed that cases of PTSD had risen by nearly 50 percent in the previous year. Soldiers plagued by this condition suffer night terrors and flashbacks, bouts of depression and anger, emotional numbing and broken relationships, as they lose their sense of trust and closeness to people.
For a long time after coming home, Lee and Cook refused to admit they had any such problem. Instead, they retreated into themselves, too proud, too embarrassed or too numb to act. Their wartime experiences gnawed at their personal lives, turning them into strangers to those who knew them best.
While some can suffer from PTSD for decades, Cook and Lee have begun to accept what happened to them, and Cook has come to forgive Lee. It has not been an easy journey, and it is not yet over – both still would like to end it by returning to the war that almost killed them. If that seems like a strange contradiction, it is merely one of the many puzzles of a war whose aftermath can often seem more harrowing – and more wounding – than the battlefield itself.
It was Ken Lee’s dad who wanted him to join the military.
Born in South Korea, Lee, 43, arrived in the United States with his mother, father and two sisters on July 4, 1975. He was 10. His father had been an intelligence officer, a lieutenant colonel in the Republic of Korea Army. “He gave up a very nice job in Korea to come here for us, mainly for our education,” says Lee. The family ended up in Chicago, where his father took a job in a steel factory.
It was a struggle getting settled. Driving a used station wagon with his kids in the back seat, Lee’s father scoured the city for discarded furniture. “We drove the back alleys of Chicago and picked up couches people threw away,” Lee says. “The mattress … I remember smelling that thing and my mom cleaning it, taking it outside, banging the dust off. It was horrible. That’s how we started our lives.”
Lee wanted to be an architect. So he signed up for every math class he could at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But as the only son in an immigrant family, he eventually gave in to his parents and became a doctor instead.
Lee is bright, with an impish sense of humor and easy laugh that spices his recollections.
When he was an undergrad, his father asked him how he would pay back his student debt, Lee recalls. “I said, ‘Actually, I don’t have anything to pay back because it’s not a loan. It’s grants and scholarship.’ He goes, ‘No son of mine is gonna mooch off the government. You pay back somehow.’ So I signed up with the Illinois National Guard. My dad was really happy. My mother, on the other hand, goes, ‘We left Korea so we don’t have to do mandatory military service and here you go and volunteer for military? What is wrong with you guys?’ So that’s how my military career started.”
Lee trained to become an officer, and today, he is state surgeon, the top-ranking medical officer in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
For Chris Cook, the reasons to join were more complicated. Cook is an introspective and modest man. He still adheres to military decorum and repeatedly will address an acquaintance as “sir,” while
occasionally slipping into the four-letter cursing of most soldiers.
Cook, 39, has lived most of his life in Waukesha County. His father was a park manager, his mother a secretary at a Lutheran church. Raised in Mukwonago, Cook joined the Guard in the summer before his senior year of high school, partly because of the veterans’ benefits he would one day receive. Serving as a “weekend warrior” for six years, he tried college at UW-Milwaukee, but found he liked to socialize more than study, he says. So he took a job in a factory before enrolling in a nursing program at Waukesha County Technical College, capitalizing on the demand for nurses. He graduated in 1991 and was hired promptly by Waukesha Memorial Hospital.
Chasing his adventurous spirit, Cook moved out of state for a while, landing in Las Vegas and then Champaign, Ill. But he eventually returned to Wisconsin and took a job at the Lakeland Medical Center in Walworth County as an ER nurse. In the spring of 2003, he returned to Waukesha Memorial, where he now heads the emergency department’s EMS program. He signed on for a two-year stint with the 440th Air Force Reserve, based at the time at General Mitchell International Airport.
Cook’s father had served in the Army Reserve; his grandfather was a sailor during World War II. But a greater inspiration was his younger brother, who joined the Guard after four years in the Navy.
“After September 11, my brother actually was the impetus for me to join back up,” says Cook. “I re-enlisted for a third time,” joining the Army National Guard.
On Nov. 7, 2003, eight months after the invasion of Iraq, Cook was called to war. “I remember being scared but also excited that I was going to participate in something I felt very strongly about – that we would go over there as a medical company and kind of save the world.”
Lee, meanwhile, had just been promoted to head the spinal cord injury center at the VA hospital in Milwaukee, overseeing the care of hundreds of disabled veterans. But the Guard called him to serve in the war, and in February 2004, he was boots-on-the-ground in Iraq, commanding Company B of the 118th Area Support Medical Battalion (now the 135th Medical Company) out of Waukesha. Under Lee’s leadership, the company would run the medical treatment clinic at Baghdad airport.
The doctor and the nurse quickly learned two grim-but-useful rules. No. 1: Men and women die in war. No. 2: They could not change Rule No. 1.
It was intense work. “I’m a rehab physician, so I deal with secondary issues of an injury,” Lee says. “But over there, trauma medicine – we were really into it. It gets the adrenaline going.”
Company B’s mission sent them to places that played prominently on the nightly news. For three months, they were stationed at Camp Cropper, a heavily secured compound at the Baghdad airport, caring for “high-value” detainees – Saddam Hussein and his captured regime.
Cook was ordered to draw blood from Saddam several times. “I was nervous,” he says, “because, to me, I was meeting the Adolf Hitler of my day. … He had that aura about him, that he thought he was still in charge, like at some point he would be back out and maybe leading his people again.
“I took care of Chemical Ali, Tariq Aziz. Saddam’s half-brother was there,” Cook says. “They were cordial, but had an air of entitlement about them. I actually had tea with them on occasion, through the course of doing my rounds. Camp Cropper was kind of like being at a nursing home for the rich and infamous.”
Lee also treated Saddam. “I found him to be very professional. It was almost like, ‘Wow, you’re the person who was such a tyrant?’ He spoke English very well, and I think he understood more than he let on. The same with the others. … They thought we had the power to let them out. They were offering us all kinds of things: ‘I have money stashed here. If you let me out I’ll give you this cash.’ It was hilarious. … They were very crafty, very smart people. I think they used it in the wrong way.”
Lee and Cook also spent time at Abu Ghraib prison, where Saddam’s government had tortured and executed Iraqi dissidents, and where U.S. military guards had been accused of abusing detainees. The prison was a city within a city, remembers Lee, its buildings old, but highly fortified.
By the time Lee’s medical team arrived, the Abu Ghraib scandal had broken wide open. The now-iconic images of naked and bloodied prisoners tethered by dog leashes and electrical wires led to prolonged investigations and courts-martial.
With another physician, Lee reviewed the protocol of health care at the prison. “We downloaded all the regulations and revamped the prisoner care system,” he says.
Lee and Cook had found their places in the war zone. Unaffected by the storm of public debate over weapons of mass destruction and torture of suspects and the troop buildup, they felt a sense of usefulness. They were participating in something bigger than either of them, each doing his part, as Cook put it, to save the world.
U.S. command issued a red alert in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2004, advising troops not to travel. The next day, the alert was downgraded to amber.
At the Baghdad airport, Lt. Col. Lee was informed that a case of blood samples needed to be delivered to the Green Zone (the heavily guarded area where U.S. occupation personnel live and work) before the samples expired. “I said, OK, let’s do it,” says Lee, “and we put our team together.”
The soldiers were uneasy. It was Sept. 12, one day after the third anniversary of 9/11. Insurgents had launched raids all around the city. “We weren’t far from Baghdad and you could see smoke billowing in multiple places,” Cook says. “It seemed extraordinarily dangerous.”
Nevertheless, Lee had issued the order. At 11 a.m., with the temperature already soaring to 120 degrees, three Humvees rolled onto Route Irish, a direct passage into Baghdad, also called Sniper Alley.
The drive normally took 15 minutes, but the convoy hit a roadblock. A Bradley tank spanned the highway, holding back traffic while a bomb squad defused a roadside improvised explosive device. “When I asked how long, [they said] five minutes,” Lee recalls. He decided to break a cardinal rule: Never stop your vehicle, no matter what. He ordered his soldiers to form a perimeter around the Humvees.
From out of nowhere, a dusty orange Chevy Malibu cut through the traffic and headed for the parked convoy. Cook reacted rapidly, lifted his M16 and squinted down the barrel, lining up the rifle’s sights with the driver’s head.
The Chevy sped closer. At 10 yards away, Cook squeezed the trigger. Once. Twice.
A spider web of cracks splintered the windshield, and almost instantaneously the car exploded into a fireball, singeing the skin on Cook’s face, knocking him to the oily pavement. Yards away, flames engulfed a passing motorist’s car, incinerating the civilian in seconds as motorists along the highway watched in horror.
Cook lay on his back, in shock, but conscious. “For anybody who has ever seen the movie Saving Private Ryan – the beach scene when the bomb goes off next to him and everything’s muffled – it was 1 million percent exactly like that,” he says. On his elbows, Cook dragged himself away from a burning Humvee and into the shadow of another vehicle. When he looked up, he saw another soldier, Lt. Chris Justice from Eau Claire, standing in the sun. “He was just splattered with blood and white as a ghost,” Cook says. “He looked at me and said, ‘Cookie, you look pretty fucked up.’ And I’m like, ‘Can you help me?’ And he said, ‘I can’t move.’ He was just frozen,” paralyzed by fear and drilled with shrapnel, his upper left arm badly mangled.
Medics loaded Cook into the back of a Humvee and raced to the Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone. “They put a urinary catheter in my bladder,” Cook says. “But the tech they had doing it was really nervous. Being a nurse for 17 years, I remember helping him do it. I was in so much pain it didn’t matter.”
Doctors removed a 6-inch piece of shrapnel protruding from Cook’s left side, repositioned his left leg as best they could, then rushed him into surgery. Six pins were drilled into his left leg to immobilize what was left of it. The next day, he was at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest American-run hospital outside the United States. And two days later, he was on a C-141 jet transport to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.
When the car bomb exploded, Lee stood a few paces behind Cook. “You know how people say, ‘My life flashed in front of me…’? Oh my God how true that was,” Lee says. “As soon as I saw the orange flash, my thoughts were, ‘Oh shoot, here it goes. I wonder what’s gonna happen to my kids. I wonder what’s gonna happen to my wife.’ ”
While his body armor took the brunt of the shrapnel, shards large and small crisscrossed his limbs and head, causing major injuries to his knee and skull. “When I woke up, a medic was working on me. And all I remember was the pain. I touched a part of my head and I saw a lot of blood … All I know is being very scared.”
Lee was airlifted by helicopter into Baghdad. His head wound was closed with surgical staples and jagged chunks of shrapnel were removed from his body. But surgeons at the Baghdad hospital couldn’t repair his knee and prepared him for a flight to Landstuhl. Eventually, he would be brought back to the states.
Lee didn’t want to go. He tried to talk an orthopedic surgeon into operating on his leg in Baghdad and sending him back to his unit, but the knee was too badly damaged. “Getting further away from my unit, I knew the chance of getting back was less and less. When I got to Germany, I fought with that surgeon too. … It was very depressing to accept. I wanted to go back to Iraq so bad, to my soldiers.”
Nine American soldiers were injured in the attack that day, three significantly – Lee, Cook and Justice. “It was so surreal,” Cook says, looking back. “You’re deployed and you think about going over there and doing a good job. Or you think about getting killed. You don’t think about what it would be like if you didn’t die. You never think about getting wounded.”
It took 19 surgeries for doctors to remove the shrapnel from Cook’s body and rebuild his legs. Surgeons at Walter Reed inserted a titanium rod into his left leg to replace the fibula, and they put four large screws into his right ankle to hold the joint in place.
“I was seen by a trauma surgeon and an orthopedic surgeon every day,” he says. “And then about a week into my stay, they had a psychiatrist come around and do a mental health evaluation. I was obviously a candidate for post-traumatic stress.” Clinicians diagnosed him with PTSD and signed him into group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling. They also put him on the drug Wellbutrin for depression.
After 45 days, Cook was sent home. He would resume physical therapy at a local hospital and counseling at a mental health clinic. But the lingering pain from his injuries and the psychological effects of PTSD were more than he could bear. He bought a laptop and a 60-inch big-screen TV and vegged out, popping painkillers, MS-Contin and Percocet, 24/7. “With Percocet, you can take two pills every four to six hours,” he says, “and I watched the clock. I tried desperately not to allow the pain to spike. I probably took those pain pills eight or nine months. There definitely was an addiction.”
Confined to a wheelchair, his left leg immobilized by a “contraption that looked like an Erector Set,” he felt helpless, useless, dependent on his parents and fiancée, who was also a nurse, to help him with every move he made. “They had to bring me a urinal and they had to dump the urinal out. They had to help me onto the toilet. They had to wipe my backside. They had to get me into the bathtub. They had to help me fix my pillow when I rolled over at night, help me get out of bed and back into the wheelchair. … I was almost like an infant in an adult body.”
Despair overwhelmed him. He’d cry for days at a time and erupt in anger. “Whether it was conscious or subconscious, I made an effort that if I was gonna feel like shit, everybody else was gonna feel like shit, too.”
Images of the blast played over and over in his head, while a sense of survivor’s guilt ate away at him. “Pulling the trigger was the easiest part of that whole day,” says Cook, though it was the first time he had fired his weapon in combat. “I don’t have any remorse for that. But I felt guilty for living. Because of the sheer violence of the explosion, the amount of damage that occurred all around me, I should’ve died. I couldn’t process why I lived.”
Despite the counseling and the medications, depression pushed him to the brink of suicide. Several of his firearms were stored in the home he shared with his fiancée. “I envisioned shooting myself in the head in the wheelchair,” Cook says matter-of-factly. “I could even tell you which gun, ’cause I had it all planned out.”
His therapist, though, had warned his fiancée to remove the guns from the house. “Which she did, and she didn’t tell me,” Cook says. “When I found out about it, I blew a gasket because it screwed up my plan. When the guns were gone, it kind of deflated me.”
It forced him to reevaluate his future. “Now I have a choice to make,” he told himself. “Am I going to stay this way? Or am I going to wake up?”
Two years after Ken Lee returned home from the war, he sat on a plane on his way to a conference in Las Vegas. He was dozing off. The man next to him got up to use the bathroom, and on returning, slid back into his seat and snapped on his seat belt.
Lee awoke like a shot.
“Weapons green! Weapons green!” he yelled, leaping to his feet and ordering imaginary soldiers to discharge their ammunition and stand down. Wide-eyed and spooked, he pushed his way into the aisle. Flight attendants tried to calm him down as nervous passengers glared.
Finally Lee regained his bearings. “I’m a veteran,” he explained, and, wearing shorts, pointed to scars on his bare legs. “See here? These are from shrapnel wounds. See?” The flight returned to normal, all was good.
But it wasn’t good. Not for a long time.
Lee stayed at Walter Reed for four months, recuperating from five surgeries and undergoing rehabilitation therapy, before returning to his wife and two children in Brookfield. His biggest challenge was the pain. “The headaches were just tremendous,” Lee says. “Before this injury I never used to have headaches.” Pain medications made him feel dizzy, so he stopped taking narcotics and used only Ibuprofen and Motrin.
Because of his head wound, he underwent neuropsychological testing and was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. Caused by an external force – a blow to the head, like the blast of an explosion – traumatic brain injury can lead to memory loss and problems with psycho-social behavior, motor abilities and speech. Attacks using car bombs and homemade explosives across Iraq have produced a dramatic rise in traumatic brain injuries among U.S. troops.
Clinicians often have difficulty parsing traumatic brain injuries from PTSD. “There’s a gray area that overlaps,” says Lee. “If the brain injury is severe, it’s pretty obvious. You’ve got a big gash and you’re not talking right … But if I get angry, is it a brain injury component or is it PTSD? You have to treat both in a sense.”
For Lee, symptoms of PTSD started “spinning off” from his physical injuries, he says. Dreams would turn into recurring nightmares. Sudden noises would make him tense. The slightest whiff of sulfur would trigger memories of the car blast.
In Iraq, he says, “everything is a threat,” everything is a potential bomb – a parked car, a Coke can lying on the side of the road. That sense of hypervigilant suspicion was hard to shake.
Yet Lee resisted counseling, ashamed to admit he was hurting. “It didn’t feel right to go talk to somebody about these issues, and I really thought I had no problems,” he says. “But for about two years, my colleagues were telling me, ‘Ken, something’s not right. … You used to be, like, jolly. But you don’t make jokes anymore. You’re not quite the same.’ And I just kind of blew it off. I was telling them, ‘I can’t be the same person. I’ve seen and done stuff a normal human being shouldn’t be doing. So of course I’m a changed person.’ ”
His behavior grew erratic. “I was drinking a lot. Before, one beer and I couldn’t handle it. I rarely drank. But now taking six, seven, eight cocktails wasn’t an issue.”
Family life became dysfunctional. “I was always mad at my kids and my wife, to the point where my son was afraid. When he dropped something on the floor, I would look and he would cringe. Every time I got mad, I would grab a toy and then, out the window. ‘You pissed me off, this toy’s gone.’ Pretty soon there were no toys left.”
One day, he was playing a board game with his children. “My daughter said to me, ‘Daddy, you don’t smile anymore.’ That’s when it really hit me. I was not the father she remembered. So I sought help. There were two psychiatrists from the Medical College who really helped me.”
Salvaging his faltering marriage was another matter. “My wife continued to have issues until – and I had never heard this before – she brought up the word divorce. That really scared me. Then I realized an entire person in me changed. I was not Ken Lee anymore.”
Like Lee, it took months for Chris Cook to finally come to grips with his ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But it was too late to save his five-year relationship with his fiancée. “I was a jerk to her,” he says bluntly. “She really got the rotten end of the whole deal.”
It was his father who finally got him to kick the pain killers. “My dad basically took the pills away from me, and I had no choice but to stop taking them,” Cook says. “I was like an addict physically withdrawing – body sweats, constantly shaking. And then being a complete ass to my father, screaming at him. My dad would be near tears. He’d say, ‘Ah, Chris, you don’t need those. Here, take some Ibuprofen instead.’ And I’d go, ‘Give me those fucking pills. You don’t know what I need.’ ”
In a year and a half of counseling – while practicing meditation and studying the writings of the Dalai Lama – Cook learned to modify his behavior. Over time, he says, he reprogrammed the way he thinks about the bomb blast. “When I first was having the night terrors, I was living that movie. Now when I think about it and dream about it, I see myself watching it. So I don’t necessarily put myself in the position of the guy that got blown up.”
Short of a “cure,” sufferers of post-traumatic stress work toward a remission of sorts. “I think about PTSD every day,” says Cook. “Once you have the diagnosis, I think you always have it.”
Cook today relies on medication to sleep through the night. He drives more aggressively than he once did and avoids passing parked cars, recalling how often parked vehicles were used as car bombs in Iraq. He also shuns crowds, seeing them as targets. “I have a little bit more of a Chicken Little, ‘the sky is falling,’ attitude.”
Lee, meanwhile, suffers from some amnesia, a likely effect of a traumatic brain injury. His wife will show him a photograph of him with his children and the family dog. “I see the picture, and I was there, [but] I cannot remember that we were there. It absolutely drives me nuts. Little pieces are gone.” He relies on his Blackberry and e-mail to stay focused.
Lee feared he would no longer be a good doctor because of his PTSD. “But I’m no longer afraid of that. I’m very functional, very capable. I’ve learned to move on. And when the symptoms come back I’ll deal with it again. … PTSD has a trigger, and you’ve got to identify that trigger and learn how to cope with it – bring your blood pressure down, calm yourself down, tell yourself it’s not a potential bomb on the road, it’s just a garbage bag.”
He believes he now connects better with patients because of his own injuries. He now walks the talk.
Today, Lee is brisk and light on his feet, always in motion despite his war injuries. His sense of humor has returned, and he shares it generously with patients. As he made the rounds at the VA’s spinal cord injury clinic recently, he was greeted warmly by his patients, most of them with varying degrees of paralysis. Wearing a camouflage jersey with military patches on the shoulders and a stethoscope around his neck, Lee walked from room to room, making small talk with each veteran while delivering sober news about their treatments and prognoses. One wheelchair-bound Vietnam-era vet, with a long ZZ-Top-like beard, needled Lee about spending too much time in Iraq. A new patient, an Iraq war vet with a wiry goatee and five silver piercings beneath his lower lip, laughed when Lee christened him “Studs.”
Another Vietnam veteran, a victim of a stroke and spinal cord injury who could not speak above a whisper and will never walk again, pointed curiously to a combat patch on Lee’s left sleeve. “I’m a colonel, you know,” Lee responded in a self-mockingly gruff tone. “You should be saluting me.”
The soldier lifted his right hand to his temple. The doctor cracked a toothy grin.
There were no military parades for Chris Cook when he returned stateside. Except for two or three soldiers, no one contacted him from Company B, which remained in Iraq for five months after he came home. Likewise, when Cook returned to Mukwonago, no one from the Guard came calling. “I had feelings of abandonment,” he says. “I gave 14-and-a-half years to the military, and then all of a sudden, I’m no good to them? I got visits from the VFW and the American Legion and that was it. Anything I needed from the state [National Guard], I had to call for.”
Cook says he had to book flights himself back and forth to Walter Reed for follow-up treatment. Frustrated and angry, he contacted Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Janesville). Ryan’s aides put him in touch with the office of Midwest Airlines CEO Tim Hoeksema, and the airline gave Cook four round-trip tickets from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C.
But his frustrations didn’t end. Cook and Lee were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat, receiving their medals at Walter Reed. In addition, Lee recommended Cook for the Bronze Star, a decoration for valor, for firing on the bomber and saving his fellow soldiers from probable death. But the medal got entangled in Pentagon bureaucracy. Again, Cook called on Ryan, who was told the paperwork had been misplaced. Cook finally received the commendation in July 2007, nearly three years after he was wounded.
“I felt like I was useful to them when I was a soldier who had four good appendages,” Cook says, still harboring animosity. “But then when you’re wounded and you’re basically bedridden, I felt as though I was not needed anymore.”
Lee says he had few complaints with the Army when he returned home. “The VA was all over me when I came back,” he says. “There was help available, but I just didn’t want it. I refused to listen.”
Nevertheless, Lee – who was promoted to a full colonel – felt like an outcast, arriving home long before the rest of his unit. “You left this family here [at home] to join a new family,” he says. “But you left that new family a little earlier than you should.” His mission as a commander was unfulfilled.
Throughout their deployment, Ken Lee and Chris Cook were never what you’d call friends. One was a commander, the other a subordinate. Their injuries, which might have brought them closer together, only separated them more. Following the suicide blast, in fact, Cook would not speak to Lee, resentful for what Cook believed were bad decisions made by Lee. “I blamed him for the situation I was in,” says Cook. “I was like, ‘This is your fault.’ ”
At Walter Reed hospital, Lee’s parents visited Cook in his room. “His dad actually thanked me for saving his son’s life,” Cook recalls. But his bitterness toward Lee wouldn’t allow him to accept their gratitude. “I was kind of like, ‘Well, whatever,’ ” he says.
The bitterness was understandable, Lee says now. “Man, he was mad at me. So was every soldier I know. The commander’s job is a lonely job. But the fact is, Chris almost lost his leg. He loves being in the military, but now he can’t anymore. Every time I see Chris, I feel guilty. I caused that.”
Cook’s anger came to a head when the two shared a hotel room for two weeks while receiving outpatient treatment at Walter Reed. “We kind of laid it on the table,” Cook says. “He said to me, ‘You know, I have to live with the decisions I make. I think about the decision I made all the time.’ And I never thought about that, from a commander’s perspective. I only looked at it from my perspective. And at that point, it made him human.
“That’s part of the whole process of healing,” Cook adds. “You have to be able to forget. I shouldn’t say that. You never forget. But you learn how to forgive. I’ve come to realize that Ken Lee has his own demons to deal with. Just like I do.”
Staff Sgt. Chris Cook was medically retired from the Wisconsin Army National Guard on Feb. 4, 2008. Officially, he is unqualified to return to duty.
The wounds have slowed Cook. Once an avid hunter and devout gym rat, the broad-chested Cook now struggles when he runs or climbs stairs. His legs and upper torso are speckled with black-and-blue scars, some the size of silver dollars. And just beneath the skin on his right ankle, you can see the sharp threads of a titanium screw.
Cook is building a new house near Eagle with the help of a VA loan. As a substitute to military life, he volunteers as a medic with the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team. He likes the sense of brotherhood and the high-risk nature of responding to emergencies. “It’s kind of a way of working on the battlefront at home.”
Cooks says he isn’t very political. He chooses to separate the warrior from the war. Still, almost four years after returning involuntarily, he believes the United States should stay the course in Iraq.
“Pulling out would be seen as a sign of weakness, and then our country would
become targets of opportunity on our own soil,” he says.
Occasionally, when he speaks to veterans groups, he will put on his combat uniform. “Even though I’m officially retired, I’ll always be a member of the Army. I still look at it as an absolute obligation and a pleasure that I was able to serve. I’d do it again. I have no regrets. Other than the fact that I couldn’t stay in.”
Once in a while Cook will dig out his “K-pot,” his Kevlar-laminated combat helmet. On the front of the helmet, next to the chevroned rank insignia, is a hole the size of a pencil eraser, probably caused by shrapnel. The hole only penetrates the Kevlar halfway through.
Stored in a plastic bag, the helmet still has the distinct odor of war. “And when I smell it, I’m right there,” he says, his voice betraying a sense of longing, of heartbreak. “It takes me right back.”
Now and then, small embedded pieces of shrapnel ooze to the surface of Ken Lee’s skin, compelling him to go to the doctor and have them removed. He keeps a small collection of the fragments in a recycled specimen bottle and lets his children take them to school for show-and-tell. “I try to cope with it the best I can with my kids, letting them know that life goes on.”
Lee still does not take medications, except for over-the-counter pain killers, and tries to make the best of his injuries. “My thumbs are a problem. A lot of times, I can’t turn a doorknob or turn keys in the car, so my kids turn the key for me,” he says. “I can’t hold a pencil. I always joke to my plastic surgeon: ‘I’ll deal with the pain. But the day that I can’t use chopsticks I won’t be worth a darn thing.’ ”
Like Cook, Lee speaks publicly about his war experiences. He’s also deeply involved with the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which he helped bring to Milwaukee last year.
And he continues to serve in the Wisconsin National Guard.
In 2009, as part of what will be the largest National Guard mobilization in decades, four physicians from Company B will be eligible for rotations into active duty in Iraq, says Lee. Including him.
“I’m a deployable asset,” is how he terms it. “And if I get the call, I’ve got to go. My wife says she’ll call the general and make a big stink. But, you know, I can’t stay in the Guard and then, when my time comes up again, not go. I think that’s wrong.”
Lee’s 10-by-12 office is crammed with military memorabilia – silver dog tags and golden medals, model airplanes and Navy ships that he made with his son, a deck of cards bearing the faces of Saddam and his many minions. And the 40-pound vest of body armor that likely saved his life on Sept. 12, 2004.
The collection is more than mere souvenirs. It is shrine-like, a testament to his commitment – and to the force that still drives him – after 22 years in the service.
“One thing I won’t give up is my military life,” he says. “If there’s a challenge between my family and the military, I tend to take the military.” Despite the wounds he carries, all the shrapnel and suffering and memories that he brought back with him, there are days when Lee would rather be back in a combat zone.
“Military life is easier. It is very structured. You get up, you got things to do. You just follow your structured life every day. Once you come home, you’ve got a whole slew of things to deal with. Life is a lot more hectic,” Lee says.
“Over there, all you’ve got to worry about is, ‘Am I gonna get killed today or maimed today?’ But that’s a fact of life in a war zone. So you accept it.”
Lee is so accepting, he’s willing to trade the peaceful complications of civilian life for the deathly simplicity of war.
“I’m a deployable asset,” he says, repeating the phrase. “I don’t think there’ll be any problem for me to be out there again.”
In the month of September 2004, Chris Cook and Ken Lee were two of 709 American service members injured in Iraq. Another 31 were killed in action, according to icasualties.org. As of early June, after more than five years of fighting, 30,182 Americans had been wounded, including 576 from Wisconsin, and 4,095 were killed, 88 of them Wisconsinites. Nearly half (44 percent) of those killed in action were victims of improvised explosive devices.
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor with Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.