In the course of my active military career, I had troops under my command on three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I have lost more of my soldiers to suicide than I lost in combat. That may sound shocking to you — it is shocking to me. But I have yet to meet a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan who doesn’t know someone who took their own life. That is staggering.
I can recite the numbers. An estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day, losses that are piled upon the nearly 7,000 US troops that have been killed in our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the stories are what plague me. The veteran who went home, put on his dress uniform, and hanged himself from a bridge. The vet who lay down on railroad tracks and texted his goodbyes while awaiting an advancing train. The vet who chose the telephone pole into which he would crash his car, trying to cover up with an “accident” what was actually a deliberate act. The vet who rented a hotel room and went there alone, gun in hand.
These are casualties of war, as surely as those who took a sniper’s bullet or hit a roadside bomb. Even within the military family, we wrestle with that notion, but in my heart they are all heroes, many of them unwilling to seek out the help that might have made a difference because they were trained as warriors to “play hurt.’’ You’re wounded, but you keep moving on because that was how you survived on the battlefield.
That’s where Home Base, a Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital program comes in, with care of the invisible wounds of war — post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, co-occurring substance use disorder. These are battles that in their own way are as challenging as any they faced in the Korengal Valley or Anbar Province.
Home Base exists to help those who have the courage and humility to recognize they need that help, and we are grateful to say that we have engaged thousands of veterans and their families in life-changing ways to cope with their invisible wounds. Last year, we added Vietnam veterans to the list of those to whom we offer care. Last summer, we and the Boston Red Sox provided over 1,400 Vietnam veterans and their families with a “welcome home” that was 50 years overdue. There was not a dry eye in Fenway Park, and I guarantee it was an experience no one will ever forget.
But on this Memorial Day, we have expanded our mission once again, this time to embrace the Families of the Fallen, many of whom are left with no place to turn while coping with the greatest of losses. In conjunction with a national military family organization called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), Home Base launched a two-week intensive clinical program for military families of fallen service members. Our first two pilot programs hosted 20 widows whose husbands or significant others died by suicide after returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Beginning this year, Home Base will begin running this program on a quarterly basis. These are families that have paid the ultimate sacrifice, too, and are deserving of our attention, care, help, and respect.
We intend to honor Families of the Fallen this summer at Fenway Park, first at the Run to Home Base on July 28, and later that evening in an on-field ceremony before the Red Sox game. Please join us. Stand with us and let these families know that we see them, we hear them, and there will always be help for them.
War is a burden that transcends time and space. The battles fought wage on within us, regardless of whether we’re in Fallujah or Framingham. On this Memorial Day, please remember and honor our fallen service members and veterans, and remember the families they left behind. Remember, too, our military caregivers, and remember those among us who continue to battle the invisible wounds of war. Knowing that you care, and are willing to help, will ultimately aid in winning a battle we cannot afford to lose.Brigadier General (Ret.) Jack Hammond is executive director of Home Base.