In July 1975, fireworks welcomed Dr. Kenneth Lee and his family to the United States. He was only 10 years old when he emigrated from South Korea. At 21, Lee enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard, encouraged by his father who was a civil serviceman in the Vietnam War.
Lee’s military career started in April 1986 and ended December 2013. He spent two years as an infantry company medic and then transferred to the Wisconsin Army National Guard. In September 2004, his overseas deployment was cut short. Lee was in Baghdad, Iraq, specifically in the deployment green zone and a roadside bomber detonated his device next to the vehicle he was riding in. Injuries he sustained included a traumatic head injury, open head injury, shrapnel injuries to his arms and legs and severe nerve damage.
Even though this incident did not deter Lee’s willingness to go back on duty, the doctors refused his request. When Lee returned home, it was a tough adjustment. Nothing could prepare him for the new challenge he faced: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had trouble coping with these effects, “ being a medic it’s hard to accept that you yourself have mental problems, not even physical ailments.” His epiphany came when his wife and two children said he did not smile or laugh anymore. Lee then embraced the idea of seeking treatment.
This personal battle helped him relate to patients in his job later as state surgeon in Wisconsin and then in his position with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Lee worked with spinal cord injury (SCI) patients and recovering patients as state surgeon. During this time, he personally revamped the medical system there by carefully checking each soldier before they were deployed overseas. Wisconsin was one of the first states to have only 1 percent return from active duty rate and about 3,200 soldiers went abroad. He wanted to enact change, and that is what he accomplished with his team.
At VA he an open office door policy, any combat veteran young or old would come into his office just to talk. “Sometimes I didn’t know who they were and I never saw them again. I can only hope that they’re doing OK.” People are just comfortable talking to Lee. He listened and told them how he dealt with posttraumatic stress, and then he laid out a map of suggestions for them. “ One time I was talking to this guy for three hours about everyday things, then we got to his family and he started opening up more.”
Moreover, Lee improved the adaptive sports and rehabilitation programs. Lee’s greatest army achievement was, he says, “...leading a troop in Iraq, I never would have imagined leading as a commander out there, I have no regrets no matter what happened to me.”
Lee discovered Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) early in his career, through a medical fellowship and later benefited a lot from its programs. Since Paralyzed Veterans did everything they could for him after his injury, he is doing anything he can to pay back that support. “ I am trying to return that generosity, every organization has their highs and lows but for me, with (Paralyzed Veterans) it’s always been a high.”
Now he is taking on new endeavors as the medical director of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. However, before medical director he was known for dressing up in honor of Kids Day—an event in which wheelchair athletes mentor and talk with children with disabilities—as Mr. Incredible, Fred Flintstone and Batman. The kids loved the energy he brought to the event and fed off of his enthusiasm. His experience with the games has been nothing but positive. “ It’s very uplifting to see these guys improve their personal well being.”
Furthermore, he thinks veterans serving in the community are extremely important for themselves and to society. It is imperative that veterans “are not drains to society but he or she is an active participant in society.” Lee believes everyone can do something to help out. Society needs to change the mindset that you need to be a veteran to speak to or serve a veteran.
Dr. Lee is currently a fully retired Inactive Ready Reserve but still works closely with VA. He not only earned a Purple Heart during duty but upon retirement, he received one of the highest ranking medals for his tremendous service, the Legion of Merit (LOM). This ceremony was something that really moved him because none of his soldiers had ever heard of someone receiving the LOM. Lee has two children and he works hard so he can provide the opportunities his father did when they moved to the United States 39 years ago.
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Christina Giordano is a student at The George Washington University majoring in business administration with a concentration in international business and marketing.