A journal to cope with Iraq War trauma turns neurosurgeon into author

Dr. W. Lee Warren

When he came home from a year in a tent hospital in Iraq, Dr. W. Lee Warren didn’t even unpack the trunk he brought home. He was discharged shortly after he finished his time at Balad Air Force Base.

The neurosurgeon immersed himself in the Alabama practice he ran with his wife, Lisa, adapting to civilian life.

“I came home from getting mortared in the tent hospital and seeing babies blown up and all these terrible things, and then I was a civilian, and I wasn’t around anyone who knew that experience,” Warren said. For four years, “that stuff was sitting there.”

But the trauma he experienced wouldn’t lie dormant forever.

“About four years later, we were sitting at a stop sign in Alabama, and Lisa said, ‘Honey, the light’s green,’ because I’d sat there through how many iterations of that light,” Warren said. “Because I’d seen a helicopter fly by and checked out.”

Then the nightmares started.

“(Lisa) said I should start journaling and unpack that trunk of all that stuff and tell me the stories, and I didn’t. I kept having trouble,” Warren said.

Eventually he talked with a psychiatrist friend, asking what he’d recommend if a client came to him with such issues.

“He said he’d tell the person to write things down,” Warren said. “What Lisa said. So I started writing it down.”

While Warren was in Iraq, he had written daily emails home, which gained traction when his family and friends forwarded them to other people. He compiled a lot of that information, he explained, into a self-published book.

Writing has always been part of Warren’s life — as a young man, it was a way he was able to communicate meaningfully with his father.

“My father was a great man, but he was pretty strict. You didn’t argue with Dad,” he said. “If I had something I wanted to communicate with him, but didn’t want to be disrespectful, I’d write him a letter. And that was something he really responded well to. That was the long-planted seed, I think.”

However, Warren didn’t know how to write on a professional level, something author Philip Yancey pointed out on a call with Warren.

Yancey made the neurosurgeon an offer: If Warren cleaned the book up, Yancey would introduce him to his agent; or Yancey could help him find a ghostwriter.

Warren tried meeting with ghostwriters, actually hiring one at some point, but couldn’t let someone else tell his story. So he bought dozens of books on writing and put in plenty of practice.

“I studied the craft and wrote two terrible novels just trying to learn how to write, and I wrote the book myself,” Warren said. He sent it to Yancey, who kept his promise.

It became “No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home from the Iraq War.”

And Warren has kept writing.

WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House, just published Warren’s third book, “I’ve Seen the End of You,” in January 2020. Warren is also part of Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau, but no one has to worry that their neurosurgeon will leave the discipline for writing, according to Lisa.

“He is not just a neurosurgeon. I call him the best family practice neurosurgeon there ever was, because the thing God created him to do was to take care of people,” Lisa said. “And the overflow of that is his ability to take care of a lot of people with the written word, but the neurosurgery comes first.”

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