Living with the Scars of a Suicide Bombing in Iraq

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Lisa Mullins: Bombing such as the ones today in Baghdad are life-changing events for those who survive them. Many of the American soldiers who served in Iraq these past nine years are all too aware of that. Ken Lee survived a suicide bombing in Baghdad in September of 2004. Dr. Lee, what happened?

Ken Lee: We were on a mission and we had to dismount because they found a roadside bomb on one of our routes. So we were pulling rear security. At that time a vehicle pulled out of the containment we had and we knew right away what his intentions were. As we're pulling our weapons out he detonated the car bomb about maybe 20 yards from us.

Mullins: When you woke up what do you remember?

Lee: The only thing I remember was an orange ball and then my life basically passing by me. I mean you hear of it in the movies, but my whole life flashed by me – my kids, my younger days of my life and all that.

Mullins: You were pretty bad off physically then weren't you?

Lee: Yes, I was. I had an open head injury. Both my legs and arms were in poor shape from multiple shrapnel injuries. I wasn't able to move them all. And there was major bleeding due to some of the bigger shrapnel.

Mullins: This is seven years later. Do you feel the effects even now?

Lee: You know, bleeding eventually all stopped and things got taken care of. But functional-wise it's really tough to deal with on a daily basis. My ankles, knees, thumbs, all the things I need on daily activity I'm having difficult time utilizing them. From the head injury itself you know, I have to constantly deal with the headaches as well as memory issues. I can't retain stuff and so if I don't write it down I lose it, and that's become the problem medically.

Mullins: I don't know how much pain you're in, do you have much?

Lee: Yeah, pain is probably one of the biggest disabling factors for me. Functionally, during the end of the day my foot doesn't lift so well, so everybody could hear me coming over by foot flapping on the floor. I can't turn doorknobs anymore. And unfortunately, I can't use chopsticks anymore. I might have to go to fork.

Mullins: Oh, no! After all this time you have to acquiesce. We should say that you're originally from South Korea and moved to the United States with your family as a child. After you left Iraq you had multiple operations to try and regain what functionality you could. There were also of course, mental problems that you had to deal with. Can you just tell us a little bit about those and how you did deal with them?

Lee: First year was real nightmare and miserable for me. And I would say it's more miserable for my family than I was because they were dealing with that effect. My threatened me with divorce. My family was telling me that I'm not doing too well. My kids were all scared of me and would hide from me when I come home. And none of these affected me until one day my daughter was playing a game with me and she just stopped playing and looked at me, and said, "Dad, you don't smile anymore." I don't know what it was, but at that point I just broke and cried. My daughter ran away from me because she thought she said something wrong. And I just couldn't stop crying. And that very next day I called a friend and asked can you hook me up with somebody who can help me with my PTSD.

Mullins: And here you were though trying to find help for yourself, but you were three things; you were a veteran, you were a patient, and you were a doctor.

Lee: Having multiple roles I have to put on a different face and different hat no matter where I go. It was easy for me to do that as a physician to take care of patients, put on a smile and hide everything. When I came home it wasn't that easy. I took it out on the family pretty bad. I took it out in the basement actually a lot, and I'm glad I took it out in the basement physically rather than any member of the family.

Mullins: So you're still married though?

Lee: Yes, actually after my treatments and things have gone well, my marriage is actually stronger than anyone else. We seem to be lot more close than when we first met or even got married.

Mullins: You are now working as a chief medical officer at the Wisconsin Medical Guard. Is that correct?

Lee: Yes, I'm the state surgeon, the title of the state surgeon for the Wisconsin Medical Guard.

Mullins: How has your work as a doctor changed?

Lee: You know, my entire life actually changed. From a physician standpoint my relationship to my patients and they respect that I have for them, and I think vice versa, it's become so close where sometimes I wonder you know, if these are my patients or my colleagues. A lot of times I have to step back and look at what my role is and distance myself from them, but the respect that both patients and I have for each other I don't think could be replaced by anything else.

Mullins: We wish you the best of luck, Dr. Ken Lee, and thank you very much for talking to us.

Lee: Thank you very much.