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Thousands run for veterans at Fenway

Annual event raises millions

More than 2,000 people participated in this year’s Run to Home Base outside Fenway Park on Saturday.

Thousands run for vets at Fenway

More than 2,000 people participated in this year’s Run to Home Base outside Fenway Park on Saturday.

Tommy Lee Kidman always wore a smile. His two daughters, Gracie and Madeline were the “light of his eyes,” friends say, and he had an artistic side — he drew, wrote, played the guitar.

But Afghanistan changed him. On the front lines, the Army medic saw death and desolation, fellow soldiers whose wounds he could not heal. The memories tormented him on sleepless nights and led to fits of rage back in the US.

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In the end, it proved to be too much. He committed suicide last summer, a year after coming home.

With his friend Kidman as inspiration, Major Craig Meling of Dorchester laced up his best pair of sneakers Saturday morning and joined about 2,600 people running at Fenway Park to raise money for military members suffering from mental trauma and brain injuries — what some call the “invisible wounds” of war.

Now in its fifth year, Run to Home Base has raised more than $11 million for a clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital that serves hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families, helping them grapple with the mental illnesses that took the life of Kidman and other soldiers. This year’s run alone raised just under $2 million, said Lee A. Chelminiak, a spokeswoman.

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Meling, a veteran of the Iraq war, said he was running to “memorialize” Kidman. The two friends shared an apartment in Connecticut years ago, and though they served in different places, they continued to keep in touch.

“I want to raise awareness and make sense of what happened to Tommy,” Meling said

On Saturday morning, under a cloudy sky, the runners and hundreds of their supporters filled the west wing of Fenway Park to listen to a round of speakers, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

“You inspire us to do the right thing,” Walsh said. “We need veteran leadership in our city.”

An honor guard made up of members from all five armed services — the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard — saluted the audience and honored their fallen comrades.

Amid a buzz of anticipation, the runners lined up outside the stadium. They took off as friends and family cheered them on, running north on Massachusetts Avenue to Memorial Drive, then back down to finish the 9-kilometer run at Fenway. Supporters cheered them on even louder as they ran through home plate.

Mike Cicchese, a Marine from Dorchester, was part of a group running for a fellow Marine killed in Afghanistan. Drenched in sweat after bringing in the rear of the first 10 finishers, Cicchese was no less enthusiastic about the day’s event.

“It was awesome.” he said. “Everyone’s got our back. Everyone cares.”

Kathy Pittman told the audience about her son Tom, an Army combat engineer who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder after long stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. She described how he would simply walk out on her at times and explode into fits of rage.

But at the Home Base clinic, she said, the family learned to cope with her son’s intangible scars. Pittman’s story resonated, it seemed, as she received a standing ovation that echoed across the stadium.

Hosting the event at the home of Boston’s beloved Red Sox helps elevate an issue affecting many in the military, said retired Army Brigadier General Jack Hammond, the executive director of the Home Base foundation.

Along with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Red Sox Foundation funds and oversees the clinic.

“Fenway Park is a special place, and today it gets even more special,” he said.

Dr. Peg Harvey has worked with hundreds of veterans and active military members since the start of the Home Base program. About a third of returning veterans come back with posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, she says, and about half of those with PTSD develop an addiction problem.

But the run is representative of a growing awareness about the mental health issues afflicting some soldiers, she said.

“It’s steadily increasing within the military,” she said. “It used to be more stigmatized, nobody wanting to talk about it.”

She says that in many cases, PTSD symptoms go away after a few months of therapy, proof that treatment can help ease trauma that would otherwise last years.

Jena Olson, Kidman’s mother, flew in from Utah to support Meling. She and her two daughters wore gray shirts bearing Kidman’s name and a picture of him in Army fatigues, the desert and blue skies of western Afghanistan in the background. The words “warrior leader,” “devoted father,” loving husband,” and “friend” floated around Kidman’s picture.

“He gave it his all,” Olson said. “But the cost of the war was pretty heavy.”

Oliver Ortega can be reached at oliver.ortega@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.
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