By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Next month Bjorn Bruckshaw will lace up his running shoes and make sure Dawsen, his service dog and running companion, is well hydrated. Then, he will take a deep breath as he gets in his truck and heads to Boston for the inaugural Run to Home Base 9k, facing his first two hurdles – traffic and crowds.
Since returning from war, Bruckshaw also avoids crowds and fireworks, and worries that “bad guys” may be lurking in parked vehicles as he drives.
Bruckshaw is running because the cause is dear to his heart – all proceeds go to a new program at Massachusetts General that treats veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan who, like Bruckshaw, have suffered traumatic brain injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I heard about the run from a friend of mine who works at Mass General, and wanted to do it because I know how it is. I see a therapist two times a week and have been going to rehab every day for the last year and a half,” Bruckshaw said.
Nine years ago this May, Bruckshaw enlisted in the Army. He was 18 and aimless, having just graduated from high school. His father, a former Army man, thought a stint in the military would give him direction.
Before he finished basic training, terror struck New York's Twin Towers, and his orders to deploy with the 82nd Airborne Division were written.
He endured the 18-month deployment – and a direct hit during his shift patrolling a Pakistani guard tower by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was one of three from his unit injured that day.
“It tore my arm up, there's a lot of nerve damage. I can't really feel it,” says Bruckshaw, lifting his left arm and running his right hand along the scar tissue. “And it threw me. My brain was rattled.”
However, Bruckshaw completed his three-year military obligation and was discharged. He headed home to Warwick, RI, and tried a few civilian jobs, but nothing seemed a good fit – not after jumping from airplanes for a living. So he decided to join the Rhode Island National Guard.
He went to dental school in Texas on the GI Bill, where he was just about to graduate when he was deployed, this time to Iraq, with a field artillery unit – chosen mainly because he already had combat experience. Although he had never thought seriously about the prospect of seeing action again, Bruckshaw spent the next year in combat.
By 2007, the war had escalated. Bruckshaw worked with prisoners and joined convoys under the constant threat of firefights and rocket blasts.
“There were points where I was getting afraid to go out, to be around other people. I was having nightmares. Some days I wouldn't eat because I was afraid to leave my bunk to go to the chow hut. Finally, I told one of my commanders, who took me to see a chaplain,” said Bruckshaw.
That chaplain wasn't assigned to his unit, and told Bruckshaw he couldn't counsel him for that reason.
“He handed me a golfball and said, 'Do you like to play golf? Here, go hit a golf ball.' I needed to talk to someone, but no one wanted to talk to me. My peers were making fun of me. It got so bad that I started to call home and just cry and cry and cry. I felt let down by the system,” said Bruckshaw. “I still get let down by the system.”
He returned home to Rhode Island in 2008, initially relieved and hoping to get back to his life.
“My girlfriend of seven years had cheated on me, and was pregnant by another man. My parents were getting a divorce. My uncle had died, and no one told me. So one night I almost drove off the Newport Bridge, but my car got stuck,” said Bruckshaw.
He was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit then transferred to the Veteran's Hospital in Bedford, Mass, where he spent 18 months. Eight months ago he was matched with a service dog, a black lab named Dawsen, through the Canine for Combat Veterans program administered by NEADS, which provides specially trained animals for the deaf and disabled.
“Having Dawsen is helping me in that, plenty of days I don't want to get up or go outside, but because of her, I have to,” Bruckshaw said. He recently got a companion for Dawsen, a bassett hound puppy named Jackson.
I just want to find a way to be normal again,” Bruckshaw said.
Bruckshaw is fortunate for the help he's getting. While an estimated 300,000 of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with lingering symptoms of depression or stress disorders, only about half seek help.
Complicating Bruckshaw's recovery is the tangle of red tape he's stuck in. He says he's been told his benefits have been reduced because service records from his first deployment are “lost.” He recently had to drop out of a criminal justice program at Middlesex Community College because his education allowance was cut.
Lost records and benefit disputes are a growing problem not at all unique to Bruckshaw, said Chrissy Stevens, of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit policy and action group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“This is a common issue, especially one that comes up from veterans making the transition from (Department of Defense) benefits to VA benefits,” said Stevens. Her organization estimates hundreds of thousands of veterans are forced to wait months – sometimes years – for full benefits and disability compensation, stuck in a system that is overwhelmed and antiquated.
Filling in the gaps and creating new avenues for service is why supporting the Home Base Program at Mass General Hospital is so important, said Dr. Mark Pollack, the hospital's chief medical officer and clinical and research leader from the post traumatic stress disorder program, and Run to Home Base coordinator.
“The tragedy is, while help is available, many don't get it. They may feel stigmatized, so a great part of our work has to do with outreach,” Pollack said.
The innovative program was really a direct result of the Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series win, Pollack said.
“A traditional part of winning is that teams go to the White House and also to visit Walter Reed (Army Medical Center). It was during that trip that some of the team owners met soldiers recovering there, and were really moved – so moved that they made a commitment to doing something,” Pollack said.
They formed a partnership with Mass General to create a unique program that not only treats veterans, but offers services to families, Pollack said.
“We sometimes forget that the families of our service men and women sacrifice an awful lot. When their loved one returns from war suffering with depression or anxiety, by extension, many husbands and wives, parents and children have difficulties coping, too,” Pollack said.
For Bruckshaw, doing something to help the cause is part of his own healing process.
“I want my life back. One of my goals as a kid was to be a good husband and father one day – I feel that will be difficult now. Dating is hard. I've had a girl say she didn't want to be with a guy who had a service dog. Others don't want someone who's been in the military. I spend most of my time playing softball,” said Bruckshaw, who plays in several different leagues to keep his mind and body occupied.
“I can't say the good days outweight the bad, but there are enough good moments in a day now that I don't feel like driving off a bridge,” said Bruckshaw. “I've come a long way, but I still have a long way to go.”