No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home from the Iraq War. W. Lee Warren, M.D. Zondervan Press, 2014.
From the first pages of No Place to Hide, I found myself transported back to Iraq. I walked between the rows of sandbags and around the puddles of filth as I made my way through long rows of modular housing units. Eventually I popped out near the courtyard fence, the one that separated the pool area from the palace itself. I shuffled my feet across the wet patio and made my way to the fifty-five gallon drum filled with concrete, mounted at an angle, and pointed the barrel of my empty nine millimeter Beretta pistol into the three inch opening. I pulled back the slide, checked the empty chamber for the one hundredth time, and let it spring back into position. As I made my way into the chow hall to wash my hands again and dry them with something that felt like wet toilet paper, I tried to ignore the dull feeling deep inside.
The mundane becomes a weapon, chipping away at resolve and fighting a battle of attrition.
Sometimes it’s not the intense violence of war but monotony and discouragement that lay siege to the soul, build their battlements, and begin to drain hope from the heart. The mundane becomes a weapon, chipping away at resolve and fighting a battle of attrition. This was the battle I experienced as an Air Force staff officer “inside the wire” when I deployed to Iraq. This is the battle that neurosurgeon Major Lee Warren (USAF) captures with such graphic detail in the pages of his autobiography, that one experiences the heat, sounds, and smells all over again.
Iraq had been ravaged by war, and it bore two sets of scars, one imposed by the brutal rule of a dictator and the second, like the marks left by stitches placed carefully by a doctor, were the scars of a war to liberate the country. Concrete walls surrounded the compound where I lived. They look very similar to the kind of concrete barriers you see in a construction zone on the highway, except these were at least ten feet tall, maybe fifteen. There were two layers of these walls surrounding many of the outposts and airbases in Iraq, including the one at Balad. The outer layer faced the banks of the Tigris River. Inside of it were HESCO barriers, giant industrial-size sand bags surrounded by a wire mesh to help them retain their shape. The second layer was around the outside of our camp, our living area, and there was a two lane gravel road between the two layers.
For each story told about the front-line war in Iraq, there are ten more that have never been told, the mundane accounts of staff officers, administrators, logisticians, and doctors who never saw life outside those walls. But in spite of the obvious absence of direct contact with the enemy, these members of the military waged an important war. From within the walls of places like Balad, they were an implicit but critical element of the strategy we employed. From offices and operating rooms, they looked deep into the heart of what it meant to be an American and found the values we were fighting for, and any warrior who finds themselves in a similar place should read Warren’s account.
…military surgeons like Warren fought with scalpels and stitches, where they battled for the lives of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
Balad Air Base was arguably a Coalition center of gravity, the largest logistics center in the country, a hub for cargo aircraft and convoys, the center of the country’s air traffic control, and a debarkation point for nearly half of the soldiers that saw war in Iraq. Beyond the logistical importance, there was another battle of equal importance inside the wall. This was the site of one of the nation’s most advanced medical centers, a place where military surgeons like Warren fought with scalpels and stitches, where they battled for the lives of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
His story is more than a biography, for it probes into the very heart of the American soldier, sailor, and marine, and finds something worth fighting for…
No Place to Hide, Warren’s autobiography, gives us a glimpse into this campaign with a detailed account of his four month deployment to Iraq and the countless mortar attacks survived by those inside the war at Balad Air Base. In one such barrage, Major Warren found himself pinned against a T-wall, hundreds of yards from any bunker, literally with no place to hide. But Warren’s account shows us something more. He details the heroic attempts of other doctors, nurses, and medical corpsmen to perform emergency trauma and brain surgery on wounded warriors, to save the lives of those fallen to IEDs, and even to serve the Iraqi people caught in the crossfire. His story is more than a biography, for it probes into the very heart of the American soldier, sailor, and marine, and finds something worth fighting for — it finds the courage, patriotism and sacrifice that makes America great. It reveals acts of unseen valor in the selfless service, Americans helping citizens of other nations and even giving blood for fallen enemy combatants. Winning hearts and minds must be a key element of our nation’s military strategy as we go forward, and Warren’s book shares anecdotes revealing heroic attempts to do that. For any student of war seeking to understand how to lead with courage and motivate those who fight from inside the wire, this book is the place to start.
As a brain surgeon and student of the neuroscience, he had so much knowledge to combat the symptoms, but he still succumbed.
Coming home and wrestling with psychological scars and pain is the second major theme in No Place to Hide. Warren suffered like many others. As a brain surgeon and student of neuroscience, he had so much knowledge to combat the symptoms, but he still succumbed. It was only after finding help from loved ones and those that shared his values, he began the long journey to recovery. He could have developed the story here in more detail, but instead he recounts it factually, as we might expect from a survivor. In this part of his story, he shows once again that universal values are — need to be — more than a passing paragraph in the Chief’s National Military Security Strategy. In fact, it is the story of values, woven into and through the lives of each character that appears in these pages, written into each person’s personal narrative, that wins the day.
The author presents this account with the kind of succinct detail characteristic of a surgeon, and he received the endorsement of many of his medical superiors. But others have also acknowledged the importance of this book. For example, the book appeared on the annual Air Force Chief of Staff reading list after having been nominated by airmen in the ranks. As an account of the war in Iraq from within the wire, it excels. And it aspires to remind us of an important principle of enduring value: To win on the battlefields of the twenty-first century, our military leaders must win the battle that each service member fights in their own hearts before, during, and after the war, and this book should serve as a case study in battles won.
Mark Jones, Jr. is a husband, father, statistician, experimental test pilot, USAF Reservist, and writer. As a member of the Military Writers Guild, he has the privilege of chairing the Membership Committee. Mark wishes to thank #MWG members @angrystaffofficer, @ladyputz, @tyrellmayfield, and @garymklein for their editorial insight and assistance. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Header Image: “Wings of Hope” by Todd Krasovetz
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