He would sit in the dark.
“My physical wounds were healing,” John Girouard was saying. “But there were these invisible wounds you couldn’t put a cast on. You couldn’t do surgery. You couldn’t put stitches on them.”
And so he would go to his room and turn off the lights and just sit there, alone.
Inevitably, in the dark, it was a different day, a different place, far from his home in Gardner. It was June 15, 2011, and he was back in Kandahar in Afghanistan, a sergeant with the First Brigade of the 25th Infantry, US Army. He was in a Humvee and his best friend, PFC Ryan Larson, was up front driving.
Larson was a skinny kid from Wisconsin. He was 19 years old and weighed 130 pounds soaking wet, and he wouldn’t back down from anything. Girouard loved him like a brother. And in an instant, that brother was gone.
The bomb that blew up their Humvee was one of the biggest improvised explosive devices to detonate in that part of Afghanistan. It killed Larson, and, if not for some improvised medical care by his Army comrades, Girouard would be dead, too.
He spent 14 months in five different hospitals, and gradually the fissures and fractures in his pelvis and spine and skull healed. Some 75 percent of injured combat veterans have experienced post-traumatic stress, and more than 40 percent of them have had traumatic brain injuries. The IED that exploded under his Humvee put Girouard right in the middle of those statistics, and even as he healed, he struggled with wounds no one could see.
And so he sat in the dark. Alone.
“I thought I was doing better than I was,” he said. “It was my mom who really noticed.”
Sara Sue Girouard walked into that darkness one day and told her son about his Uncle Mike.
Mike Drake came back to Central Massachusetts from Vietnam as one of the first veterans who was declared totally disabled by post-traumatic stress. John Girouard was so young when his Uncle Mike died that he never really knew the whole story. To get him out of that dark room, his mother told him the whole story. His Uncle Mike killed himself, overwhelmed by his combat experience, unable to access the care he needed.
“My mom said it was OK to ask for help,” he said.
A mother telling her son it is OK to ask for help. It sounds so simple. But in John Girouard’s case, it changed his life. It saved his life. Because of her, he drove down Route 2 from his Gardner home to Home Base, the program that the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital launched in 2009 to treat the invisible wounds of war.
On Saturday morning, John Girouard stood on the infield at Fenway Park, watching 2,300 runners cross home plate during the annual Run to Home Base. He shook hands with hundreds of them.
Once something unique to this neck of the woods, the Home Base model is going national.
Each $1 raised by runners Saturday will be matched by $2 from the Wounded Warrior Project to pay for a national group of medical centers that will provide intensive programs for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress — programs based on the Home Base playbook. Organizers estimated that runners in Boston raised $1.6 million on Saturday.
Home Base at Mass. General is one of four academic medical centers nationwide that will take part in the Warrior Care Network, to provide care for wounded veterans and their families. The other centers are the University of California’s Operation Mend Program in Los Angeles, Emory University Medical Center’s Veterans Program in Atlanta, and Rush University’s Road Home Program in Chicago.
In its first six years, Home Base has treated more than 7,500 veterans and family members. They are an important complement and alternative to a Veterans Administration system that has been overwhelmed in the face of two wars in a decade.
“While we are the largest private-sector clinic in the United States, most of our vets have been from New England,” said Mike Allard, chief operating officer at Home Base. “Now we’ll be able to serve anybody in the United States.”
That’s because the outpatient program that consisted of 15 sessions over 15 weeks is being reconstituted as a two-week intensive program. It’s not quite in-patient, as vets will not sleep at Mass. General, but it will be pretty close, with up to 14 hours a day of extensive clinical work.
John Girouard wholeheartedly endorses the new approach because he went through it. Not by design. He had a two-week window when he was in Massachusetts, so the Home Base treatment program was adjusted and condensed to fit those 15 weeks into two.
“John’s situation led us to recognize we needed a new model on top of the outpatient model we currently have,” Allard said.
Girouard believes the two-week intensive program will appeal to a wider swath of vets. Two weeks seems a lot less daunting than 15, even if it is far more intense.
Girouard is walking proof that treatment for post-traumatic stress and brain injuries works. Two years ago, he started working as a firefighter and EMT in Fitchburg. He looks like he could run through a brick wall.
When wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, too few Americans had skin in the game to pay attention. That attention has waned even more as those wars fade in the communal rear view mirror.
Last week, a study was released showing that 271,000 Vietnam vets still suffer from post-traumatic stress.
Our memories fade. We forget. We move on. But it’s important we remember that the people we send to fight our wars don’t have the luxury of forgetting.