July 26, 2016
It wasn't a replay of the latest home run blast by David Ortiz on the Jumbotron in Fenway Park's right center field, but hundreds inside the park still watched the screen. There were no vendors on Yawkey Way selling hotdogs, popcorn or giant foam fingers, but it was still crowded with people milling about expectantly.
Instead of baseball fans, the streets outside Fenway on Saturday morning were filled with hundreds of runners, bouncing on their toes, stretching and arranging headphones. Hundreds more inside the park watched the scene on the Jumbotron. They were there for the seventh annual Run to Home Base, a 9-kilometer run designed to raise awareness about the struggles American soldiers face after serving in combat zones, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
Temperatures soared Saturday, easily topping 80 degrees by the time the first finishers emerged in center field and made their way around the field to step on home plate and complete their run. But the difficult conditions weren't enough to discourage many runners and walkers. Several pointed out that soldiers endure far worse protecting American freedoms.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kyle Larson was among the first to cross home plate to complete his fourth Run to Home Base. "This is the hottest by far. Very tough," he said. Larson, who is stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base just outside Boston, said everyone in the military knows at least one person who struggles with PTSD or related conditions. Running to support treatment options and research, he said, is an easy decision. "You can't not do it. If you're in the Air Force or military around here, it's kind of your duty to come and do these things," he said. "Everyone knows someone affected if you're in the military, so this should hit home to everybody."
Larson didn't exaggerate. An estimated one in three returning soldiers suffer from what Run to Home Base calls the "invisible wounds of war." Since Sept. 11, 2011, close to 3 million servicemembers have deployed overseas. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day.
It was during a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center following the Red Sox 2007 World Series win that Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner pledged to help address the challenges so many returning soldiers faced. The Red Sox Foundation partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital to create Run to Home Base, the only partnership between an academic medical center and a Major League Baseball team in the world. Since then, it has become a National Center for Excellence and has treated more than 9,000 veterans and family members and trained more than 12,000 clinicians across the country. It is the largest private clinic treating PTSD and TBI, as well as anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. Since 2009, the Run to Home Base 9K has raised more than $18 million.
Southern New Hampshire University Associate Dean of Academics Matthew Belanger was one of the first of about 80 SNHU runners to finish Saturday. He said it was among the toughest races he's completed, but that being a part of a large SNHU contingent as well as the crowd of supporters along the route helped motivate him. So did thinking about what soldiers sacrifice for their country, he said. Watching a soldier in full fatigues and heavy pack running the same race in the same heat can make you push a little harder, he said.
"You're out there running and you're thinking about what people are doing overseas, and then you're seeing people running in their full (fatigues) carrying a flag and they're passing me," Belanger said. "You know, everything that I do doesn't compare to what these guys and women are doing every single day. It definitely helped along the way."
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alton Dean was one of those soldiers who completed the race clad in fatigues and combat boots. He also had a large pack on his back, tags with the names of fallen soldiers dangled from it. The pack weighed 22 pounds, he said, one pound for each of the 22 veterans who commit suicide daily. That weight, Dean said, is less than what some soldiers are burdened with upon their return. "We've been doing this since day one in the military. We carry the weight. It's what we do," Dean said. "Especially at an event like this, it represents the burden that our struggling veterans who came home have."
Amelia Manning, executive vice president of SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, said she was also inspired along the route by the veterans and soldiers running alongside here.
"This was really super meaningful to be part of this. It's so cool to see the veterans running with their flags. Even though it's hot, they're running with their flags. I'm like, 'I can't stop because they're carrying something that's heavier than I am,'" she said. "I think the Home Base program is doing incredible work in terms of helping people to heal and find their way back from their injuries from the war."
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Timothy Woodward grew up in a small town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in film and writing in California and an MFA in Fiction from SNHU.