THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kevin Cullen

Humbled into action

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 21, 2009

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US Army Major Matt St. Laurent had a long drive back to New Hampshire, and he was on an early flight out of Manchester to Washington the next morning, but he still didn’t want to leave Fenway Park the other night.

Nineteen months ago, the Red Sox had visited St. Laurent’s work place, an amputees clinic in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “We have a lot of professional teams come through,’’ St. Laurent said. “It’s basically a photo op, and I thought it was going to be the same thing with the Red Sox.’’

It turned out to be much more.

There was a young soldier, his legs missing, and all he wanted was to meet Dustin Pedroia.

“You saved Buchholz’s no-hitter,’’ the legless soldier said, and Dustin Pedroia smiled, embarrassed.

A woman walked around the clinic with a Red Sox hat. She asked Jason Varitek to sign it for her son. Her son was in his room upstairs, heartsick with depression from a traumatic brain injury he sustained in Iraq. He loved the Red Sox, and Varitek was his favorite player, but he couldn’t leave his room.

Varitek looked at the Red Sox doctor, Larry Ronan, and signed the hat.

“We were told they were going to just stop by and take some photos, that they had to catch a plane back to Boston,’’ St. Laurent said. “They stayed for two hours. I grew up a Red Sox fan, but I was blown away by the way the players connected with our soldiers. The guys forgot about their wounds. They had no legs. They had no arms. But that all went away while the players were there, talking to them.’’

On the way out of Walter Reed, Tom Werner, the Red Sox chairman, grabbed Ronan by the arm. “We’re going to do something,’’ Werner said.

A few months later, Ronan was sitting with Jim Peake, the retired general who was running Veterans Affairs, explaining how the Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital, where Ronan works as an internist, wanted to create a program to help wounded veterans.

When the administrations changed over, and Eric Shinseki replaced Peake, Ronan worried that he was going to have to sell the whole idea all over again.

His concern was misplaced: Shinseki is a Sox fan.

This can be a cynical town, and no doubt there are those who see this as nothing more than a PR stunt. But St. Laurent was in the clinic that cold February day and saw what happened. He knows that Terry and Jacque Francona’s son Nick is a Marine.

“The soldiers I work with every day, you can see their wounds. But it’s the invisible wounds we’re not getting. The post-traumatic stress,’’ St. Laurent said, and traumatic brain injuries. “There’s a lot of stigma associated with this, and it’s hard for soldiers to admit they have a problem when they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. I think a program associated with the Red Sox means more soldiers, more families, will get help.

“We can only do so much. The VA can only do so much. The rest of society needs to step up. I’d like to see other teams get involved. This could start something bigger.’’

Last Thursday, on the day that the Red Sox Foundation and MGH unveiled their Home Base program to help struggling veterans and their families, St. Laurent flew up from Washington and went to Fenway Park. He didn’t want to leave, just like Rocco Baldelli’s pop-up didn’t want to come down. But it finally did, and the Red Sox had lost.

St. Laurent stood in the aisle next to the Red Sox dugout, talking to a young boy who had caught a foul ball in the early innings.

After St. Laurent explained what he did - “I work with wounded warriors,’’ he’d told the boy - the boy took the ball out of his sweatshirt pocket and offered it to St. Laurent.

“I can’t take that,’’ St. Laurent said.

But the boy insisted. “Give it to one of the soldiers,’’ he said.

Matt St. Laurent took the ball and shook the boy’s hand.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.