A decade of Welcome Back Veterans' impact

Major League Baseball, Headstrong Project team up to help veterans

November 10th, 2017

Ever since returning Civil War soldiers dispersed around the continent and spread the game of baseball that so many of them learned in camps, the national pastime and the national defense have shared a special connection. It was evident again throughout the recent World Series, with U.S. military troops celebrated at all seven games in Los Angeles and Houston.

Now Major League Baseball recognizes Veterans Day weekend, paying homage to those who sacrificed so much for our freedom -- and sending a loud message of support to all military families who cope with the hardships of deployment and transition to civilian life.

MLB on Friday announced a $250,000 grant to the Headstrong Project (GetHeadStrong.org) to support the organization's efforts to provide comprehensive mental health care to post-9/11 military veterans, service members and their family members. The grant also will be used to support the organization's continued expansion and goal to provide services in 20 locations across the country by 2020.

"From Ted Williams to Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson, our sport has a deep connection to our country's armed services," said Melanie LeGrande, vice president of social responsibility, Major League Baseball. "That history also includes the millions of dollars generated by our fans toward the care of thousands of veterans through the Welcome Back Veterans initiative. Major League Baseball proudly continues our legacy of support for service members and their families through this grant to the Headstrong Project."

In 2008, with the financial support of Mets chairman & CEO Fred Wilpon and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, MLB established the Welcome Back Veterans fund to continue to increase public awareness about issues faced by returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as support programs and services that benefit these men and women and their families. MLB and clubs have raised more than $32 million for this cause.

Initial Welcome Back Veterans funding supported a variety of nonprofits targeting veterans' greatest needs, including mental health as well as job training and placement. In 2010, efforts shifted to support a national network of Centers of Excellence to provide the best care to veterans while funding groundbreaking research to continue seeking treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Centers of Excellence are located at internationally recognized, university-based medical centers across the country, and they include the following seven core centers where treatment models are being developed and patients are being served: Braveheart Welcome Back Veterans Southeast Initiative at Emory University in Atlanta; Home Base Veteran and Family Care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; Military Support Programs and Networks (MSPAN) at the University of Michigan; Road Home Program at Rush University in Chicago; Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone; Nathanson Family Resilience Center at UCLA; and Veteran Cultural Competence Project at Duke University.

As a first decade of Welcome Back Veterans efforts approach their milestone, LeGrande has been spending recent months touring some of these centers to see how they operate uniquely, how collaboration between centers is happening, how military families benefit, how MLB's contributions have made an impact and where more help is needed entering the next decade.

"As the daughter of a man who served 22-plus years in the Army, it's a wonderful opportunity to see firsthand the MLB and Welcome Back Veterans-supported Centers of Excellence," LeGrande said. "I appreciate their ability to serve those who have served their country, and to also serve their families. It's impressive that they are able to focus on the whole person -- from mental to physical health -- and utilize individual and group methods along with art therapy, yoga and resiliency programs. I'm proud of the way the Centers of Excellence collaborate and communicate amongst the institutions. Successful programs are shared and replicated, and lessons are learned. They are committed to improving the field by training the trainers, and sharing best practices, and that can only lead to more and improved support of those in need."

Here is a close-up look at three of those visits on LeGrande's tour, to give you an idea of what happens year-round through that bond between baseball and military:

New York: Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic

Dr. Charles Marmar, chair of psychiatry and executive director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone, called it "a wonderful relationship."

"We have received generous support, which will be over a four-year period of time -- from Welcome Back Veterans and the McCormick Foundation -- to take care of, in many ways, our highest-risk veterans," he said. "Those who have a combination of PTSD, often with some depression, frequently some TBI as well, and co-occurring alcohol and drug abuse. They are complex patients. You've given us the resources to care for them. You've given us the freedom and opportunity to build an evidence-based, high-quality personalized care treatment program for them."

The MFC, which opened in July 2012, offers free and confidential mental health care for veterans and their families regardless of discharge status. Removing barriers to care, they have been able to treat more than 200 veterans with those complex problems Dr. Marmar described, and the dual-diagnosis program is now a key element of the center's overall offering to veterans and their families.

Just consider the story of a combat veteran in his late 30s named Dean, who was mandated to a substance-abuse treatment at a residential facility. He sought out treatment in the MFC to address PTSD from multiple combat tours in Afghanistan.

Dean began drinking heavily when he came home to cope with extreme anxiety, disturbing memories and feeling profoundly disconnected. After several DUIs and a felony charge, his wife divorced him and he was no longer allowed to see his children. He came to MFC to "finally address the PTSD -- it's the reason I drink, and I will probably relapse again if I don't deal with things that happened while I was deployed," he said.

In treatment, Dean talked about being mistrustful of others, including other veterans, save for those who have been through similar combat experiences. Before the MFC could address PTSD, they had to focus on building his ability to trust them enough to make therapy possible. This entailed spelling out his conflicted feelings about whether he wanted to get better. Now Dean is committed to sobriety, no longer wants to engage in self-destructive behaviors, and he envisions a future where he has close relationships again.

"Using our measurable outcomes, their stress levels are down, their depression levels are down, their concussion-related symptoms are down, and of critical importance with your support, we've had major success in reducing alcohol and drug use," Dr. Marmar said. "That translates into better lives, better health, better marriages, more employability and just more pleasure and quality of life."

Boston: Home Base Veteran and Family Care

Home Base is a Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital program, and since 2009, it has worked to heal invisible wounds for veterans, service members and their families through world-class clinical care, wellness, education and research. Invisible wounds include PTSD, TBI, depression, co-occurring substance-abuse disorder, sexual abuse and other issues. It is a National Center of Excellence and the first and largest private-sector clinic in the nation dedicated to healing these unseen injuries.

Home Base is undertaking a major expansion of its multifaceted programming for veterans, service members and their families. The new state-of-the-art facility is set to open in 2018. LeGrande said she was especially moved by this example of art therapy at Home Base, featuring a series of masks. "On the front is 'How people see me,'" she said. "And on the inside, or back of the mask, is 'How I'm really feeling.'"

Unique to Home Base: its two-week intensive clinical program is an outpatient treatment program that combines evidence-based medicine with complementary and alternative medicine in a concentrated fashion. Patients receive about 50 hours of individual and group therapy -- treatment, lodging, transportation and meals are covered at no cost.

"It was one of the greatest things I've ever done," said Kurt Power, a Purple Heart veteran, of his time spent at Home Base. "I can't thank people at Home Base enough. It was really a life-changing experience."

Los Angeles: UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center

On the workout day before Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, LeGrande toured this just-opened facility almost right next door to Jackie Robinson Stadium, where the Bruins baseball team plays. VFWC is a unique partnership between UCLA and the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Healthcare System, and it strengthens and heals veteran families by coordinating UCLA campus assets and providing high-quality and innovative supportive education, service and preventive services integrated within a holistic, family-centered framework.

"The funding and support has been tremendous. It's valuable and necessary," said Tess Banko, director at VFWC. "Really, it has helped us create that network and work between different organizations that are facing the same issues. Research has been a big part of it, training community providers to be able to offer the focus model. It's really allowed us to come further in our knowledge, and also establishing this center in itself was a part of that initiative."

The number of veterans is expected to increase by one million over the next several years as Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn draw down. Veterans of this longest U.S. war are more likely to have children, and they are also far more likely to be female. VFWC is uniquely prepared to handle that, said Banko, who was in the military herself and is a survivor of sexual trauma.

"We're tremendously proud to be here at the center offering women veterans specific services and workshops and different events to help them not only at transition, but all along the road in establishing a life," she said.

"I feel like we've come a long way in helping military families, whereas the focus before was typically the service member or the veteran. Now widening knowledge is illuminating the fact that families are affected, children are affected. In a sense, we are scratching the surface of the resurface and what is possible in their care. ... We're tremendously grateful for everything in being able to establish this center. There is a way to go, but thank you so much."

Banko gave this parting advice for any military family reading this and wondering how this connection between these U.S. institutions might help them:

"My advice would be that you're not alone, and don't be afraid to reach out. Anything you are going through, you are not the only one. I know that it's difficult, and it's probably terrifying sometimes, but you really need to just reach out and hold onto what's important to you and seek help, because help is out there."