Mass. program helps vets with combat stress

Sunday September 16, 2012

BOSTON -- Part of Robert Doyle's job as an Army sergeant in Iraq was to escort dignitaries across hostile roads.

But after surviving a 2007 blast that severed limbs of fellow soldiers, Doyle didn't care to meet any VIPs after his return home.

"I just want to get well," Doyle told his doctor at his first Home Base Program appointment in Boston in 2011.

That day, the veteran turned down the chance to meet Red Sox owner John Henry, who happened to be right outside his treatment room.

To Doyle, it was more important to talk with a fellow combat veteran who told him he could trust the clinicians offering help for his combat-related stress.

Home Base treats veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, conducts related research and provides counseling for veterans' family members. In 2009, Massachusetts General Hospi tal and the Red Sox's charitable foundation partnered with oth er agencies to launch the program.

The idea for the program took root after the team visited vets at Walter Reed National Mili tary Medical Center in Wash ing ton following its 2007 World Series win. Since then, a program affiliated with the Atlanta Braves has modeled itself after Home Base.

Home Base officials said it is different from Department of Veterans Affairs programs because it also helps veterans with dishonorable discharges who are dealing with what experts call the "invisible wounds of war."

Program officials said it was a challenge at first to find patients to treat. But that changed after combat veterans began working on the New England program's front lines.

Veteran outreach coordinators are Home Base's first point of contact for potential patients and relatives looking for help for vets in their families. When a call comes in, the outreach coordinators ask about sleep patterns, physical symptoms and de ployment histories to get an idea of the problems vets are facing.

Doyle was out of money, living in his car and suffering with the memory of the 2007 blast when he sought help at Home Base and encountered veteran outreach coordinator Nick Dutter.

"I walked in the door and met Nick," the Bronze Star recipient said. "First thing I asked him was, ‘Can we talk outside?' "

Doyle said Dutter, a 29-year-old Army veteran who also served in Iraq, gave him the boost he needed to start his treatment.

"I didn't want a sales pitch. ... I just wanted to know that this place is OK," Doyle said. "He speaks my language. He gave me the nod."

Roger Knight, a 33-year-old Green Beret who worked as an Army weapons and intelligence specialist, is the veteran outreach director for Home Base. He interviewed for the job by satellite phone while still de ployed in Afghanistan.

Knight works with Home Base's three other decorated combat veterans to put a familiar face on a program that requires vets to first overcome what some see as a stigma about getting help.

"If you don't have gunshot wounds ... or a missing limb, guys are like, ‘I'm OK.' But they may not be," Knight said.

Tommy Furlong, a 28-year-old who became an outreach coordinator in April after serving in Afghanistan, said he looks to build a common bond with veterans from the beginning.

"One of the first questions I ask is, ‘What branch are you with?' " he said.

Then he'll tell them: "Oh, I'm a Marine."

At Mount Wachusett Com mu nity College in Gardner, Fur long and Dutter recently appealed to an audience of student veterans with the same approach while publicizing Home Base.

"Our boots were in the same sand as you guys," Dutter told them.

The outreach coordinators also play a role in helping pa tients stick to what can be an intense treatment period that includes reliving war trauma.

"You have to relive horrible to get over horrible," Doyle said recently of his care program.

If patients stop showing up, outreach coordinators call and check on them. They're also part of Home Base's clinical team, where they translate military lingo and bring battlefield perspective to meetings with civilian doctors who are treating former troops.

Psychiatrist Rebecca Wein traub Brendel, a program director, said the vets offer critical feedback from patients who might hesitate in questioning doctors because their training has taught them not to challenge authority figures.

In Doyle's case, a year of treatment turned his life around.

He has a place to live in Northborough, is enrolled in an entrepreneurial program for veterans and applied for a grant to start a defense contracting business.

This summer, Doyle finally met the Red Sox owner and threw out a ceremonial first pitch at a game at Fenway Park, which he called a symbol of his recovery.

"It's saying that I'm back," he said.


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