Boston program helps veterans finally reach home
BOSTON (Oct. 25, 2012) — It’s not easy to reach home base in baseball. That journey can be even more difficult in real life for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who return to their loved ones with the so-called “invisible wounds of war.”
Jeremy Bordenca, 34, has traveled that difficult path. When he came back from Iraq in February 2005, the former Army staff sergeant had changed.
“I would walk my house in the middle of the night to make sure the doors were closed, the windows were locked,” Bordenca recalled. “From there, it went to actually physically walking my neighborhood.
“Slowly, I was alienating myself from everybody when I came home. I started having a lot of drinking problems and anger-management issues, and being able to hold a job was becoming next to impossible. I said, ‘Where am I going to end up at? I’m either going to end up in jail or I’m going to end up dead,’ because that’s the harm that I was doing to myself and others.”
To help veterans such as Bordenca find their way back, the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital teamed up in 2009 to form the “Home Base Program” to treat post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. Each of those organizations contributed $3 million in seed money over three years to launch the unique partnership, which had been born during visits that Red Sox players, management and owners had made after their World Series wins in 2004 and 2007 to young veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Home Base is the first partnership of its kind between an academic medical center and Major League Baseball to offer clinical care, community education and research for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families, according to retired Gen. Jack Hammond, Home Base executive director, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Massachusetts General Hospital has a 200-year history of providing care to our veterans,” Hammond said. “Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for the civilian medical community to work with the government to do whatever we can to help veterans and families affected by the invisible wounds of war.”
Home Base offers outpatient clinical care for veterans and families in New England, clinical and community education about these wounds, and does research into post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, know as TBI. One in three veterans is expected to experience PTSD, depression or TBI.
After hearing about the program through family members, Bordenca sought help from Home Base in early 2010. At the time, however, his anxiety prevented him from driving downtown from his suburban home, so a Home Base outreach representative came to him.
“He came out to my house and met me,” Bordenca said. “I was blown away by that. He was a veteran. When he and I sat down and talked in my living room, it was like I can connect to him because he’s been there. He’s seen it.”
That got Bordenca into the program, which serves active-duty, National Guard, Reserve and former service members regardless of their ability to pay, whether they carry insurance, or their discharge status. If veterans or family members are uninsured, they will not receive bills for care.
The Home Base clinical team includes psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners, physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, social workers, and addiction specialists. Massachusetts General Hospital is ranked the No. 1 hospital in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
The Home Base staff includes four veteran outreach coordinators who are Afghanistan or Iraq veterans.
“We all saw combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Nick Dutter, associate director of veteran outreach. “Whenever a veteran calls, we’re the first point of contact, so they’re talking to us. We do the initial information gathering to present to the clinicians.
“Most of our referrals come from family members and veterans who have already come in for treatment.”
Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, M.D., Home Base clinical director, said veterans receive appointments for treatment within two weeks, and a typical course of treatment for combat stress or PTSD lasts 16 to 20 weeks.
“We’ll stay with someone as long as they need and/or want support from us,” Brendel said. “The kinds of evidence-based treatments that we’re offering — for combat-related stress, in particular — are highly effective for most veterans.”
According to Brendel, symptoms of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress are very similar, and every veteran who comes to the program is thoroughly evaluated for both conditions. That approach distinguishes the Home Base Program.
“Another thing that makes us unique is that we are also a family clinic, and we define family very broadly, so it’s really anybody who loves or cares about the veteran,” Brendel said. “One of the things that we say in our program is that for every warrior, there are 10 (family or friend) worriers.”
Unlike some other areas of the country, New England has no large, active-duty military bases, and most service members are in the National Guard or Reserve. Home Base serves veterans and family members throughout New England.
According to Dutter, Home Base has helped nearly 500 veterans and their family members during the past three years. Add its training programs for health care providers and community education on the needs of military families, and that number swells into the thousands.
Home Base collaborates with the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, along with state and local veterans’ organizations.
Home Base relies almost entirely on philanthropic donations and actively fundraises. Its largest, most visible event is the annual “Run-Walk to Home Base,” which attracts thousands of participants for a 9-kilometer run/3-mile walk that starts and finishes in Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox.
Funds support clinical care, community education and other Home Base programs. Among its most popular is the “Home Base Adventure Series,” which offers such outdoor activities as sailing, skiing, skating, basketball and baseball free to veterans and their families in an attempt to strengthen family relationships and bring military families together. Veterans who participate in the adventure series do not have to be patients.
“These are the types of things the younger-generation veterans want to do,” Dutter said. “We want to get out there.”
Another new program is “Staying Strong,” an initiative to support military families at home and in school communities while their service members are deployed and after they return home. Staying Strong offers free online parenting advice for military families and materials for schools to support military-connected children.
Hammond said he hopes that Home Base can serve as a model for other academic medical centers across the country to partner with Major League Baseball teams to support veterans and families during deployments, but especially long after veterans return home. His own experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq showed Hammond the importance of organizations such as Home Base. He urged veterans to get help early before symptoms escalate to full-blown PTSD.
“If you’ve been home a few months, and you are still having trouble sleeping, being in crowds, or just feeling numb, that’s time to get some help,” Hammond said. “There was no safe place in Iraq or Afghanistan, and there’s no doubt that living on high alert for repeated deployments takes a toll on Soldiers.
“Before I even returned home from Afghanistan, I could see the strain on the Soldiers from the multiple deployments. On this last deployment, I had eight divorces in my headquarters of 200 people.”
Bordenca didn’t want to hurt his young family. Diagnosed with PTSD, he went into treatment at Home Base.
“The more I got involved, the more I started to open up,” Bordenca said. “It takes a while for me to warm up to people, so this was a first. I know that I’m in a better place now. The (Home Base) staff is phenomenal. They actually listen to you, and it’s not like it’s just kind of going in one ear and out the other.”
Bordenca, who now works for an irrigation company in Massachusetts, does whatever he can to spread the word among veterans about Home Base, where he still has monthly appointments.
“It’s ingrained in my head — never leave anybody behind,” Bordenca said. “There’s veterans that don’t know where to turn. Well, I’m not going to leave them behind, because somebody didn’t leave me behind.”
For more information about Home Base, visit www.homebaseprogram.org, or call (617) 724-5202 to make an appointment.
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