Ryan Vanderweit joined the infantry in 2002 and was quickly deployed to Iraq at the beginning of the war. When he got out of the military seven years later, reentry to everyday life was not easy. “When you come out, you have a completely different thought process than people who haven’t served,” he says. He had trouble making friends and didn’t know how to fit into the new world around him. He struggled with anxiety.
It wasn’t until Vanderweit started working out with a friend, another new vet, that something clicked. Showing up at the same time every day and working hard with someone who understood his experience was transformational. “I found that place where I belonged again,” he says. Vanderweit found his own path to mental well-being through running and fitness—and he knew others could, too.
“This mission is personal, because fitness, in many ways, has saved my life. I know what it can do.”
Around the same time, a new organization in Boston called Home Base, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, was founded to provide veterans like Vanderweit with no-cost care to help them thrive in life after the service. “Our purpose is to address the invisible wounds of war,” says Dr. Ron Hirschberg, Director of Wellness at Home Base. Hirschberg hopes that the stigma of mental health stops being a barrier for people to get care. “It’s really that hurdle of communicating to the public and to the veteran themselves that a mental health challenge is no different than a physical challenge.”
When Vanderweit found Home Base, he knew he had to get involved. Today, he runs the organization’s Warrior Health and Fitness program, where he works with 20 to 30 veterans a week over the course of 90 days. “This mission is personal,” he says, “because fitness, in many ways, has saved my life. I know what it can do.”
Johnny Jarnagin was part of the first cohort to come through Vanderweit’s program. He served as a medic in the army and was deployed to Afghanistan. And like Vanderweit and so many veterans, he struggled to find his place in civilian life. “When I first got out, I sort of wanted to distance myself completely from my experience in the military and just forget,” Jarnagin says. “Burying things and just forgetting about them isn’t a good way to deal with them, so I think finding Home Base and a like-minded community of people who went through a similar experience was pretty important.”
Fitness was a major point of connection in the military, with everyone working out together every day, so it was a natural way for Jarnagin to connect with other veterans as a civilian. Physical health really is mental health, he says, which wasn’t something he’d considered before Home Base. “People who have gone through the military have to deal with a lot of stress and challenges and traumas,” Jarnagin says. “I think that being open to pushing yourself again in a physical way will really open doors and help people become more whole.”
Vanderweit helps people move past their perceived limitations every day, and he’s putting that into practice himself this fall. He’s running the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 250-kilometer race across the unforgiving Sahara Desert. It’s something he never thought he would do. Vanderweit is looking forward to pushing himself and the healing that comes along with it, and to bringing awareness to what Home Base is doing to address the struggles veterans face every day. “The gym might not be for everybody, running might not be for everybody, but movement is for everybody,” Vanderweit says.
That idea—that everyone can benefit from movement—shows up in everything Home Base does, including its annual fundraising event Run to Home Base, a scenic 5K or 9K run through Boston that ends by crossing home plate at Fenway Park. And it’s an idea shared by New Balance, which has partnered with Home Base for over a decade. “New Balance has been something more than a corporate sponsor. They care about the veteran population. They care about the people we serve,” Vanderweit says.
This year’s Run to Home Base, happening on September 25, is more important than ever, Vanderweit says, because the pandemic made the road to recovery that much more difficult for veterans. To learn more or sign up, visit runtohomebase.org.
Veterans and their families can learn more about the support services offered by Home Base by calling (617) 724-5202. To support Home Base with a contribution, click here.
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