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09/17/09 11:20 PM ET

Red Sox team up to help war veterans

Pledge care for those with stress disorders and brain injuries

BOSTON -- In a major effort to help veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Red Sox on Thursday unveiled a multifaceted initiative in tandem with Massachusetts General Hospital at a news conference at Boston Marriott Copley Place and through a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program, in cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, is designed to aid service members affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Objectives of the program include providing diagnosis and clinical care for veterans with PTSD and TBI; offering outreach and support services to families of affected veterans; conducting innovative research to deepen the understanding of the disorders and developing better treatments for them; and educating veterans, families and health-care providers about the diagnosis and treatment of these disorders.

Thousands of soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq struggle with PTSD and TBI, also known as "invisible wounds of war." Some choose to wage their fight in silence.

Now they don't have to.

"Many veterans who have trained and served so bravely have been reluctant to deal with these challenges," Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said. "These servicemen and -women have often been told to tough it out on their own, and that soldiers, after all, are supposed to take care of others. Given the power of the Red Sox brand, we thought perhaps we could help in articulating the scope of the problem, and more important, help find a way to destigmatize these medical conditions and encourage veterans and their families to seek treatment."

United States Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Zimmerman, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Boston's series finale against Los Angeles, fought back tears while telling his story in a gripping address during Thursday's news conference.

"I admit it took my wife and I some time to decide if we were ready to share our journey so publicly," said Zimmerman, who suffers from both PTSD and TBI after sustaining multiple concussions in the Iraq battle of Fallujah late in 2004. "But this is a wonderful opportunity to encourage fellow service members to seek the help and the care that they need.

"I lost 22 brothers in the battle of Fallujah, and I remember all 22 of their names, and their faces. I will never forget them. It's very difficult, but at the same time, as I've been taught in counseling, I have to remember the 30 Marines that we were able to save that would have been lost."

Zimmerman then described the changes he experienced upon his return from duty.

"When I got home from Iraq, my wife kept telling me that I had changed," he said. "Deep down, I knew I had changed as well. I forgot things, I had blackouts, I had seizures. I couldn't remember where I was going, or even why. I was also verbally aggressive to my wife, and to others. This eventually escalated to a physical threat to a colleague at work. These actions were inappropriate, and I was out of control. It's very embarrassing and humbling to admit all of this right now. I said and did things I am deeply ashamed of."

Through treatment, Zimmerman is learning how to cope with the disorders that have changed him forever.

"It's been a long road back," he said. "I've been in counseling to identify the things that trigger my episodes of anger and anxiety. Because of the support I've received, I've been able to make adjustments and regain more of my former self. I still have TBI and PTSD, and I will for the rest of my life. But I've learned, and will continue to learn, how to live with these conditions on a daily basis. For me the first step to recovering was realizing I had been injured. I thought if I didn't have any physical wounds, I wasn't hurt at all. I was also afraid of losing my job and status, or even my family, if I didn't admit I was the Navy officer I thought I was and everyone expected me to be.

"But my wife and I decided that we need to be brave enough to tell the truth about what PTSD and TBI did to myself and my family, to try to save other service members from going through what I have. I was drastically changed by my experiences and my traumatic injuries suffered in Iraq. I didn't want to admit I had a problem, but with my wife's help, I finally got the courage to come forward."

According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study, one in five service members from combat theaters suffers from depression or stress disorders, including PTSD. In addition, nearly 20 percent of veterans of these modern wars have experienced concussions or other traumatic brain injuries during their tours of duty. In total, one-fourth of returning servicemen and -women will have considerable difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

The Red Sox and Mass. General are taking a significant step toward easing that stress.

"It takes tremendous courage for a veteran to step forward and ask for help," said John A. Parrish, M.D., director of Home Base, who served as a Marines Corps medical officer during the Vietnam War. "In New England alone, thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who may be in rough shape psychologically avoid treatment because of this stigma. You see the devastating effects of PTSD and TBI in the growing rates of unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide among veterans. Home Base is committed to rebuilding lives, restoring families and finding better ways to treat these disorders."

From ownership down, the Red Sox have been touched by what veterans have endured ever since their visits to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The team traveled to the facility during both of its trips to the White House, where the Sox were honored for their 2004 and 2007 World Series titles. Players, coaches and team officials all met with servicemen and -women who have suffered combat-related injuries -- both physical and psychological.

"Like many Americans, I found myself frustrated with the reality that so many of our recently returning veterans and their families are facing the additional challenge of PTSD and TBI as they're transitioning to civilian life," Werner said. "The Red Sox Foundation determined that we must find some way to use our unique position in New England to encourage those veterans to find meaningful help. We want every returning soldier, sailor or Marine who may be facing PTSD or TBI to know that Red Sox Nation respects them, cares about them and is offering a 'Home Base' where they and their families may find solutions that make their homecomings less challenging."

At the conclusion of his address, Zimmerman made a spirited request of those soldiers whose lives have been scarred by war's "invisible wounds."

"You didn't ask for these injuries," he said. "You were called to serve your country, and you answered. Now you need to do what's right for yourself and your family and seek the help you need.

"The Home Base Program is something service members have needed for a long time. Thank God it's finally here."

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