Dr. Kenneth Lee: Veteran, Doctor, Teammate
Harry S. Truman. John F. Kennedy. Henry Kissinger. Pope John Paul II. Linda Carter. Those are just a few of the notable names Dr. Kenneth Lee joined when he received the 2017 AMVETS Silver Helmet Award in March.
The prestigious award, nicknamed the “Veteran’s Oscar,” is awarded to individuals in recognition of excellence and outstanding contributions in the fields of Americanism, Defense, Congressional, Civil Service, and, the category for which Lee was recognized, Rehabilitation.
“You look at all the past recipients of this award and you can’t help but feel that you don’t even come close to being worthy,” says the past Purple Heart recipient and current Associate Professor of Physical Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and Chief of Spinal Cord Injury Division at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.
But if you were to talk to the thousands of veterans Lee has worked with and helped over the course of his career, they would give you a different answer. In their eyes, Lee is more than their doctor or an expert in his field. He’s a comrade, and one who gets it.
“Gets it” because in 2004, while stationed in Baghdad, Iraq as a commander of a Wisconsin Army National Guard medical battalion, Lee was seriously injured in a car bombing. Multiple shrapnel injuries and a traumatic brain injury led to five major surgeries, months of rehabilitation and a long, painful, road to recovery.
“When I was blown up, it was pretty bad,” Lee recalls.
It wasn’t just his body affected by the event. Like so many veterans, Lee endured the mental and emotional aftershocks of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are things that still linger, but I do my best to not let it take hold,” he says.
One way he has done that is through adaptive sports, giving other veterans who are learning to live life post-combat injury a positive outlet and encouraging community.
“But in so many ways these guys help me, too,” Lee says, referring to the athletes he works with through the various adaptive sports teams and organizations.
Among the organizations is the Milwaukee Eagles Wheelchair Lacrosse Team Lee with two other veterans created, owns and manages. This team was the catalyst for the Midwest Regional Wheelchair Lacrosse Division. Lee is also the Medical Director for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the President of the Board of Wisconsin Adaptive Sports Association.
"Many of our disabled veterans partake in those sports teams,” Lee explained. “We travel all over the country together, talking, competing, spending time together, so sometimes there is a complete breakdown in that doctor-patient relationship and it becomes more like comrades and teammates.”
By day, Lee juggles the responsibilities that come with running his own clinic, managing patient care at the veteran’s hospital and his duties affiliated with MCW.
“From 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. my life is full, maybe even topped out,” Lee said.
That may be, but his is a life also full of passion, passion pursued at a cost.
“You can’t do it all without giving up something,” Lee says.
For him, that meant retiring from the military sooner than he anticipated after 27 years of service.
“My dream of forming a competitive adaptive sports team wasn’t going to happen unless I retired from the military,” he says.
It also wasn’t going to happen without a significant amount of time away from his family.
“Fortunately, instead of giving up on me, they chose to partake in these activities with me,” Lee says of his family, who often travels with him to the various adaptive sports events.
“Without a doubt, veterans are a huge part of me,” says Lee. “But my support team is a tripod. One is the veterans. The other is my family. The third is the disabled community, people with a disability who want to be involved. That trifecta really pushes me forward.”
The sacrifice is great, but so is the reward.
“Not monetary, but the reward of a junior basketball team going to the championship or seeing the veteran who was a couch potato and sick all the time out there participating, working hard, and being successful. That goes beyond any monetary reward.”