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11/27/09 10:00 AM EST

Home Base way for Sox to give back

Werner helped hatch program that benefits soldiers' health

BOSTON -- When the Red Sox went to Washington, D.C., 20 months ago, they weren't just there to be recognized as World Series champions during the obligatory White House ceremony. No, they wanted to make it a more meaningful journey.

So as a team -- from ownership to the front office to the coaches and players -- they made a trip to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, hoping to brighten the day for some wounded soldiers.

While the Red Sox interacted with many soldiers, there were others who weren't in the mental and/or physical state to come out of their rooms. Instead, their parents would get autographs and exchange pleasantries with the players.

That was how Red Sox chairman Tom Werner became acutely aware of just how severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be on returning vets.

And that was when the seed was planted in Werner's mind -- the one that officially took shape two months ago, when the Red Sox Foundation formally unveiled the Home Base Program, a $3 million, multifaceted initiative built to help soldiers deal with PTSD and TBI. In a unique partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Red Sox are determined to help take the stigma off of the soldiers who deal with those afflictions.

"While we were [at Walter Reed], we learned what an epidemic post traumatic stress disorder is," said Werner. "I think now people are probably a little more sensitive to it because of the tragedy at Fort Hood. We decided we have to do something. Here in Boston, there's probably a wealth of psychiatrists who actually, if you can harness their wisdom, could actually come up with a program that could make a difference. The Red Sox would like to play a role in that, because I think it could destigmatize it.

"Solders are reluctant to admit they've got psychological problems, so the Red Sox can play a role in telling them that it's an act of courage, not an act of weakness. That's just an example of what the Red Sox can be doing. The Red Sox can make it easier in that situation to allow a veteran to call up and say, 'You know what, I'd like to come in and seek some help.'"

So at a time of year when families everywhere take time to count their blessings, the impact of a program like Home Base can resonate even more.

"It's incredible that the Red Sox are involved in this. The positive impact is almost beyond calculation because it does a number of things," said retired lieutenant colonel Sam Poulten of Chelmsford, Mass., an Iraqi war vet who has a son in Baghdad. "First and foremost, it raises awareness to this thing that more and more returning servicemen and women face.

"And that is either PTS -- Post Traumatic Stress -- and notice I'm leaving off 'D' because it is not a disorder. It is just post-traumatic stress. The other part of that is the traumatic head injuries that we're seeing as a result of the survivability, the body armor, and better helmets and the survival rate is great but there's often temporary or permanent brain injuries that need to be dealt with. The Home Base program is raising awareness for both those things -- the traumatic brain injuries and the post-traumatic stress.

"Beyond raising awareness, they're also making it much easier for men and women in the armed forces to come forward, especially on the PTS. When they see that Red Sox players are supporting them and they see that the Red Sox and the Red Sox Foundation are with them, it's a whole lot easier to talk to someone about the trauma of war and returning to civilian life and trying to fit into the normalcy that the rest of us have while people are between us and those that would do us harm."

On Sept. 17, the program had a poignant launch in which Bryan Zimmerman, a Corpsman in the Navy diagnosed with PTSD, spoke openly about his situation and how grateful he was to see the creation of a program like Home Base.

"Solders are reluctant to admit they've got psychological problems, so the Red Sox can play a role in telling them that it's an act of courage, not an act of weakness."
-- Tom Werner, Red Sox chairman

"I can tell you know that I never thought I'd leave Fallujah alive," Zimmerman told the assembled audience that day. "Our battalion aid station was located in a small area of a local building near the front lines right in the thick of the battle. It was a military innovation at the time. And as a result, even our aid station was constantly under fire. I could feel RPG's and was blasted unconscious by IED's a number of times."

As traumatic as it was, Zimmerman had no idea what the fall-out would be until he got home.

"When I got home from Iraq, my wife kept telling me I had changed," said Zimmerman. "Deep down, I knew I had changed too. I forgot things, I had blackouts, I had migraines. I couldn't remember where I was going or why. I was also verbally aggressive to my wife and to others. And eventually it escalated to physical threats to a colleague at the clinic where I worked. I was out of control.

"It's very embarrassing and humbling to admit all of this now. I said and did things that I am deeply ashamed of. But my wife and I decided we needed to be brave enough to tell the truth about what PTSD and TBI did to me, to try to save other soldiers, sailors and marines from going through what I did."

And with the continuation of Home Base, the first such program formed by a Major League baseball team, that awareness should only grow.

"The Red Sox Foundation has committed $3 million over three years and that's by far the largest single board grant we've ever made," said Meg Vaillancourt, the executive director of the Red Sox Foundation. "I think it speaks to Tom's commitment. He doesn't have a veteran in his family. He doesn't have a veteran's background. He just appreciates the service that they give and feels somebody who puts themselves on the line for all of us deserves the best care they can get, and it's shameful that they can't."

One of the things that pleases Vaillancourt most about the program is the assistance it can give to the families of those impacted by PTSD and TBI.

"The most exciting part of this is there's a family program," Vaillancourt said. "The VA, by law, cannot serve families. So a veteran who has a problem can present himself or herself and get treatment but if the veteran is not well mentally and the family is suffering because of that, that family can't go in and ask for help or how to deal with him, or how to respond when he or she is acting a certain way.

"That's a big downfall. If anyone is going to get better, their family needs to help. This has a family component that we expect will be kind of the most powerful part of it. It's really, really exciting. But it's all really Tom's idea and the Foundation board stepped up behind it and said, yeah, we're going to do it. It's going to be a true team effort, so we're excited."

The Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital will officially open their Veteran's clinic early in 2010.

"[Tom Werner] doesn't have a veteran in his family. He doesn't have a veteran's background. He just appreciates the service that they give and feels somebody who puts themselves on the line for all of us deserves the best care they can get."
-- Meg Vaillancourt, executive director of the Red Sox Foundation

"I think it's terrific," said retired Army general Frederick Franks Jr. "I believe that the Red Sox, given their winning organization, given their extraordinary community outreach there in the Boston/New England area and having the ownership and the players and the manager directly involved in this should really be inspiring for soldiers who maybe for one reason or another are having some adjustment difficulties and want to reach out and need a hand to help and a heart to care, and I hope they do."

When Franks met with the Red Sox during the summer of 2009, he could sense their desire to help.

"I'm honored to be part of it and team up with Dr. [John] Parrish and Tom Werner and [Dr.] Larry Ronan there with the Red Sox and Terry Francona and the ballplayers," said Franks. "It's a wonderful combination, and my hope is that veterans there in Boston and the New England area who are maybe having some difficulty adjusting will maybe reach out and we can reach back and help them in some way. I got to talk to Terry and David Ortiz and Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett. It was great. It was genuine and authentic, they really want to help."

"A lot of people say, 'Thank the veterans,' and that's really great, we want to thank them," Vaillancourt said. "But we want to kind of go one step further and do something that actually helps and especially helps their family."

The dedication the Red Sox are putting into the program is obvious to those involved.

"They're investing literally millions of dollars and thousands of hours," said Poulten. "That's what makes this so special. It's not just window dressing, it's not just words. They've really followed it up with action. It's good. I'm hoping that not only will it take off in Massachusetts, but I hope it will be a model for the other 49 states, and then we'll really have something."

And Poulten wanted to add one more thing.

"I'd like to wish a great Thanksgiving to both everyone who is still deployed and their families back at home and every veteran everywhere."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.