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Safe at home

After Red Sox visits to Walter Reed, team foundation and MGH launch effort to help struggling war veterans

Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield chatted with Private First Class Sean Bannon of Winthrop at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2008. Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield chatted with Private First Class Sean Bannon of Winthrop at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2008. (Michael Ivans/ Boston Red Sox via Associated Press File)
By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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It was supposed to be a brief stop for the Red Sox to share the World Series trophy with wounded soldiers. But the team lingered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for much of the afternoon, deeply moved by their conversations with amputees and veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Now that visit in February 2008 has turned into much more. The Boston Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital will announce today the launch of a $6 million program to treat the rising number of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries and to encourage reluctant veterans to seek services.

The players hope to take a crucial role in trying to diminish the stigma many veterans feel about asking for help for a mental disorder. Pitcher Tim Wakefield has filmed the first of a series of planned public service announcements in which he implores veterans to get treatment. “Being on a team means never having to face a challenge alone,’’ he says.

The unusual Home Base Program will include a clinic at Mass. General to evaluate and treat veterans and to counsel family members, who can suffer when a veteran abuses alcohol or has angry outbursts. It will also provide training for psychiatrists in the community and expand research into post-traumatic stress and combat brain injuries.

All of it grew out of the team’s visit to Walter Reed hospital and a previous trip there after the 2004 World Series victory.

“We talked to vets who were clearly going through some challenges,’’ Thomas Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox and head of the foundation board, said of the 2008 trip. “Many of them are going through multiple deployments, and they’re just kids; they’re younger than my kids. There was a connection between the vets and the team, and we felt the Red Sox could do a lot in educating the public.’’

Many veterans in the rehabilitation unit for amputees also suffered from post-traumatic stress. One patient did not want to leave his room, so he gave his baseball cap and glove to his mother, who asked catcher Jason Varitek to sign them for her son, said Dr. Laurence Ronan of Mass. General, chief internist for the Red Sox, who accompanied the team.

Pitching coach John Farrell visited a neighbor’s son, who was in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury, Ronan said.

A number of studies have found that post-traumatic stress, an anxiety disorder some people develop after experiencing a life-threatening traumatic event, and traumatic brain injuries are rampant among veterans returning from the Middle East. Of the more than 1.6 million troops deployed since October 2001, nearly 20 percent report symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, and 20 percent have possible traumatic brain injuries, according to a report from the Rand Corporation in April 2008.

The Rand report estimated that almost half of the 300,000 military service members who had returned home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression had not sought treatment.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Bryan Zimmerman, 36, said he delayed getting help because he was scared of harming his Navy career. Unlike in most civilian jobs, commanders in the military are told when a subordinate is being treated for medical or emotional problems, he said.

Zimmerman, who lives in Rhode Island and appears in the first public service announcement with Wakefield, was a physician’s assistant in the battle of Fallujah in November and December 2004, some of the heaviest urban combat US Marines have experienced.

Zimmerman took care of injured Marines in the city, meaning he was exposed to constant enemy fire. He was able to save 30 Marines who had life-threatening injuries, but 22 in his unit died.

“When I first came back, I felt normal, as if I were just like everyone else,’’ he said. But several years later, he became aggressive and violent toward his family and his co-workers at a medical clinic in Newport.

Working in battle, “you have to have the confidence and moxie to pull it off,’’ he said. “I couldn’t turn that off when I came back.’’

Even though he had become a discipline problem at work, it took him a year to participate in extensive therapy for post-traumatic stress. “My fear was that if I admitted I had a problem, the Navy would be done with me,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to seem weak. This program is going to open doors that have never been opened to service members.’’

Soon after the trip to Washington, Werner and other Red Sox officials, Ronan, and Mass. General chief executive Peter Slavin began negotiating the program and meeting with military and Veterans Administration officials to enlist their help. The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his staff arranged many of these meetings.

The Red Sox Foundation and Mass. General each have promised to raise at least $3 million over three years; the Red Sox also will produce an unspecified number of public service announcements. The plan is for the Veterans Administration to participate, including by allowing physicians to treat veterans in the Mass. General clinic.

Dr. John Parrish, a Mass. General physician and Vietnam veteran who has suffered from post-traumatic stress, will head the Home Base Program. He said the rate of the disorder among veterans today appears to be much higher than for men returning from Vietnam.

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “had multiple deployments and were in constant danger from roadside bombs,’’ he said. “There was no safe place, even if you had a desk job.’’

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