Chris Gemmer can tell you exactly when he realized he had brought home more than war stories from his five combat tours.
It was Memorial Day 2018, and a Navy SEAL was receiving the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor on the battlefield. That ceremony triggered in Chris Gemmer a sometimes suppressed memory of another Navy SEAL, a teammate of his, who didn’t make it back.
They were in Afghanistan together, in 2002, and in one of those things that happen in combat, Chris Gemmer went one way and his buddy went the other.
“I wasn’t there when whatever happened happened,” Chris Gemmer told me. “And I have had trouble dealing with that fact. If I had been there, would it have made a difference? Would he have made it?”
These are the existential questions that the people we send to war face. They make a spontaneous decision to go one way in the battlefield and live with its consequences forever. Call it survivor’s guilt. Call it post-traumatic stress. But combine that with repeated blows to the head, and four years after Chris Gemmer retired as a master chief petty officer and highly decorated SEAL he was a hot mess.
“I’d walk out of the house and leave the sliding glass door wide open,” he said. “I left the stove on. I broke down emotionally. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
The traumatic brain injuries and stress that Gemmer had sustained during his 25-year military career, including four combat deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq, were smoldering in his head like a lit cigarette dropped into the cushions of a sofa.
The stigma that surrounds admitting you have the invisible wounds of war is high in the military’s regular units. The pressure on those in special operations — the elite units now shouldering most of the remaining burden in Afghanistan and beyond — is astronomical. The best of the best, the bravest of the brave are not supposed to acknowledge vulnerability on any level. They are trained to ignore or overcome the pain and stress that break ordinary people.
Gemmer got lucky when a senior officer heard from some former SEALs that he was struggling and called to recommend Home Base, the cutting-edge program operated by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox that treats this very special corps of wounded warriors.
In January, Gemmer came to Boston from his home in Ohio and was treated for TBI in one program, and for post-traumatic stress in the two-week intensive clinical program that has become a national model.
He got better.
“I got my confidence back,” said Gemmer, 48, a physician’s assistant and father of three. “They reduced my physical pain and gave me hope.”
He is now a believer, spreading the good word of Home Base among SEALs and the wider veterans community.
“If you’re respected, word of mouth is the best way to get someone to come in,” said the very respected Gemmer.
On Friday night, Chris Gemmer and his strong and so-very patient wife, Jennifer, will return to Boston for the first time since his treatment. He will be there at Fenway Park on Saturday when what has become a signature event in the city, the 10th annual Run to Home Base, is held.
He is a warrior, a SEAL, and so he tends to focus on the mission at hand, better at doing than talking. But he will speak at Fenway Park, offering something of a pep talk before everybody runs around a circuit of city streets before entering Fenway and crossing home plate. He will talk about how what he experienced in Boston, in the care of committed, competent professionals, allowed him to go back to Ohio, to be all he ever wanted to be besides a good sailor: a good father and husband.