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Votto launches foundation to assist veterans

Reds first baseman dedicated to helping service members, families cope with PTSD

CINCINNATI -- Even though he is a ballplayer fortunate enough to have a lucrative contract, Joey Votto knew he couldn't help solve all of the problems in the community or just one that's as vast as mental health issues.

The Reds first baseman publicly launched the Joey Votto Foundation on Thursday with a clear vision -- to help military veterans and active service members in Cincinnati and his hometown of Toronto who cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I wanted to be specific with the foundation," Votto said. "I've always been motivated to look at and respect military members. Every day when we play a game in the second or third inning, especially in Cincinnati, there's a veteran that returns who stands on the dugout. We clap for him. You can give a courtesy clap, but I'm on a daily basis impressed and honored to be in the presence of somebody that I can't even relate to what they think or how they got to that position or the way they risked their lives."

Votto, 30, has never suffered personally from PTSD but had experienced the trauma and stress from loss. His father, Joseph, died suddenly at the age of 52 in August 2008. As he mourned, Votto suffered from depression and panic attacks that caused him to be hospitalized and placed on the disabled list and away from the Reds for about three weeks during the 2009 season.

"It was physiological reaction to a traumatic event in my particular life," Votto said. "I cannot relate to what the military members experienced. But I can say I have experienced some physiological symptoms similar to what they experienced. It's not necessarily the same, but there is some crossover."

According to the Votto Foundation, about 25 percent of returning service members experience PTSD and need psychiatric treatment. Roughly half of these veterans drop out before completing treatment.

Votto's foundation aims to help not just individuals with PTSD but also spouses and families of the veterans affected. He also wants to bring more awareness to PTSD programs so that more people might be willing seek help.

One of the foundation programs will be called the Joey Votto family military stress disorders program and will work with the University of Cincinnati. It will offer services for active duty soldiers, those in the reserves, National Guard and also group care, family care and child care. The goal is provide care for approximately 500 new patients for about 4,000 therapy sessions each year.

"It's critical we provide care," said Dr. Kathleen Chard, the director of the trauma recovery center at the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Hospital. "In the city of Cincinnati and Tri-State Area, we have outstanding care at the Cincinnati VA. Unfortunately, if you're a veteran that chooses not to go to the VA or is perhaps ineligible for the VA, there are no other options. It's absolutely important that we provide these services for our active duty, reserve and guard that want the care they need and deserve and have no way to get it."

Michael Newcombe, a Canadian veteran from Ontario, was the type of person that Votto's foundation hopes to help. Newcombe, who was on hand for the foundation launch, suffered multiple heart attacks from PTSD symptoms before getting help eight years ago.

"Twenty-five years in the military, I have a lot of memories I'd like to forget. I know they'll never go away. They'll always be there," said Newcombe, who served in the Gulf War for Operation Desert Storm. "Things for people like Joey and what he's doing today only makes it better for us, the veterans, and their families. As difficult as it is for us to live with all the problems we have, we can't forget our families. They deal with it as well.

"Having Joey not just jump on the bandwagon to help our veterans but the fact he wants to get involved and help families as well, certainly speaks to the type of person that he is."

On Thursday night, the Joey Votto Foundation held a benefit event at the Green Diamond Gallery in Montgomery, Ohio. Included was a live and silent auction that featured items like an all-expenses-paid trip for two to New York to meet Derek Jeter with tickets for the 2014 Reds at Yankees series; a trip for two to Los Angeles to meet Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully and watch the Reds and Dodgers; a signed Mariano Rivera jersey and a 45-minute coaching session from Votto for a child's baseball team.

The foundation's annual operating budget for 2013 was $400,000, with all of its expenses underwritten by Votto. That meant 100 percent of all money raised on Thursday was going directly to the programs that help the vets with PTSD.

"Starting it with a bang gives us a chance to raise funds and catapult the foundation and make that commitment to Dr. Chard's UC program," Votto said.

In April 2012, Votto signed a 10-year, $225 million contract extension that essentially meant he would play his entire career with the Reds. He wanted to honor that commitment with a personal one of his own.

"I'm Canadian. But I also work here in Cincinnati," Votto said. "I have a home here. I'm everyone's neighbor. I'm a ballplayer that takes a lot of pride in the city that drafted me and signed me for my entire career. I'm committed to this city. I have a house. I'm not going anywhere. I don't plan on going anywhere. I want to be here. I want to help out -- both American and Canadian returning veterans.

"If we help out one person, one family and one neighborhood and one small community -- we'll start small and work from there. We're trying to do our best to provide genuine help. During my experience in 2009, I received treatment and I saw the benefit. … I've been so lucky. I've received support in my life. I want to let people know I am part of the community and the community helps one another."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto