MADISON, Wis. - This weekend, Col. Kenneth Lee will bid farewell to a 27-year military career, mostly with the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
His time as a company commander during a deployment to Iraq and his tenure as the Wisconsin Army National Guard's state surgeon count among the highlights of his career.
Equally significant, but far less enviable: the Purple Heart, the mild traumatic brain injury, the post traumatic stress.
Yet, even with a damaged knee, legs and arms, nerve injuries in his lower extremities, splitting headaches, memory lapses and shrapnel that continues to work its way out of his flesh, the soft-spoken South Korean immigrant speaks with gratitude about his time in the National Guard.
"I got a lot more from the Guard than I put into it," Lee said. "Really, there was no reason to quit after the initial six or eight years. It was worth it for me."
In the past, Lee spoke of the comfort of the military regimen and how its rigid certainties, even in the midst of imminent danger, were often preferable to the unpredictable nature of civilian life. But in time it became clear to Lee that it was time to move on.
"Everything hurts," he said with a laugh. "Doing annual training in the field, it's taking longer to recover at home. It used to be a simple recovery, but now if it's a two-week annual training it takes two weeks to recover."
Lee noted that with relatively few positions for medical officers in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, his retirement allows others the chance to advance.
"It's not too good to have an ingrained person in for many years — you lose sight of the program, of purpose, so it's always good to change," Lee said. "This gives an opportunity for another fine citizen Soldier to come up and see how he can improve the program."
Having said that, Lee is proud of his accomplishments in the Wisconsin Army National Guard's medical community. Recalling his frustration as a young medical officer, he was determined to bring a collaborative style of leadership to the job.
"I really started working with the middle managers here, getting input from the Soldiers, making a lot of programmatic changes," Lee said. "We've come to the point where the Wisconsin AMEDD community stands out in the National Guard system. I believe we are the spearhead of a lot of the medical programs that are going on right now in all the Guard.
"I feel like I'm leaving something here for the Guard," he continued. "I feel I've done something for them."
Lee described his role as a figurehead, giving credit to the full-time staff in the Wisconsin National Guard's Health Systems Services department.
"Nothing can be done without your people," he explained. "All the way from your Soldiers working in the trenches to the middle managers who pretty much manage everything for you — the singularity point doesn't work. This mass herd mentality, as long as the herd mentality is good, it seems to move heaven and earth. We thought it was impossible to do some of these things, and yet it happened."
Lee will not embark on a retirement schedule of puttering around the house quite yet. He remains employed at the Clement J. Zablocki V.A. Medical Center, where he works with spinal cord injury patients — a job he has held since graduating medical college.
"VA had by far the most opportunities, with its 24 spinal cord injury centers across the nation," Lee explained. "By far it’s the largest system of care for that population. I went in there as a physician, and two years later I was selected to be lead one of the SCI centers, in Milwaukee. It's been great. When I first joined the VA, my colleagues all laughed at me for going to the VA when I could have gone another route. But the tables turned — the VA is one of the leading health care programs in the world. Now a lot of my colleagues are trying to get into the VA."
Lee can relate to many of his patients at the VA. A combat veteran himself, Lee bears the physical and emotional scars left by a car bomb which charged his three-vehicle convoy Sept. 12, 2004 on Route Irish, one of the deadliest stretches of pavement in Iraq.
"As a veteran, serving the veteran, there's nothing like it," Lee said. "That doesn't mean you have to be a veteran to work with veterans, but being a veteran helps establish good connections."
Lee deployed in 2004 to Baghdad as commander of what is today the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 135th Medical Company, overseeing military medical treatment clinics at Camp Cropper, Fallujah, Logistics Support Area Seitz and Abu Ghraib. Running those clinics included revamping the detainee care system at Abu Ghraib after the scandal broke, treating infamous "Deck of Cards" leaders such as Tariq Aziz, Ali Hassan al-Majid — better known as "Chemical Ali" — and Saddam Hussein, and working feverishly over several days to save badly wounded Marines during the 2004 Fallujah offensive.
"That was one week of sleepless nights," Lee recalled. "That was bad."
The Sept. 12, 2004 car bomb attack prematurely ended Lee's deployment. He was treated at two Army hospitals in Iraq, transferred to Germany and then to Walter Reed where he spent four months. He underwent four surgeries and extensive physical rehabilitation, and lobbied unsuccessfully to return to his unit in Baghdad.
Lee said he suffered for two years after returning from Iraq. He thought that, as a physician, he should be immune to post traumatic stress. His brain injury heightened frustrations that strained his relationship with his wife and children.
"The kids were just deathly afraid of me — my wife couldn't handle it," Lee said. "I'm known as a goofy kind of guy in my friends circle, but it was all gone, lost. It wasn't until that little eight-year-old girl said, 'Dad, you don't smile anymore,' — oh my goodness, that hit me so hard. That set me on the road to recovery, accepting PTSD and moving on.
"It took another two or three years to get a handle on this thing," he continued. "I never want to go back to being that way — that's why the funny guy comes out."
Laughter plays a significant role in his leadership at the VA.
"A lot of quirky little comments to put people at ease, get people smiling even when they're tired — otherwise, day to day is a grind," Lee said. "Even though it may sound unprofessional, I want them to think of me as a clown, as somebody who made them laugh."
While he was recovering at Walter Reed, Lee discovered that his bid to host the 27th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games at the Zablocki V.A. Medical Center — submitted before he deployed — was approved. Today he is the national director for the wheelchair games.
"I have a lot of programs I'd like to initiate for veterans," Lee said. "I love doing adaptive sports with them. There are so many things I want to do — with the freed-up time from the Guard, I'll be able to do a lot of those, from the weekend standpoint. My wife doesn't feel she's gaining anything."
Lee credits his father with encouraging him to join the military. When he signed up, he was a sophomore at the Medical College of Wisconsin, paying for school with government grants.
"All of a sudden, he asked, 'What are you doing to pay back the government?'" Lee recalled. "He told me if the government was giving me money, I had to work for it. So the next day I went to the recruiting office and said, 'I'm joining the Guard.'"
Lee enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard, where he spent two years as an infantry company medic. He transferred to the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1988 and received a direct commission after graduating from the Wisconsin Medical College.
Lee said he would miss the soldiers and contractors he worked with in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, a group he considers a second family.
"I won't miss having too many generals," he admitted. "I only need to have one general now — my wife."