During a tough year, veterans find mental health care at Home Base

Air Force veteran John Hicks holds a theatrical, papier-mâché mask and sketches lines on it

Air Force veteran John Hicks holds a theatrical, papier-mâché mask and sketches lines on it for definition. He’ll paint it next.

“Kind of like movie star-ish on the outside to show that, like, put-together face, you know, that you’re trying to show,” Hicks explains. “The big beaming grin with the little cartoon-like glint off the teeth kind of thing.”

Hicks paints the outside of his mask. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The inside of the mask, Hicks says, will be “kind of raw and not so put together.”

Hicks has always loved art, but it became true therapy for him this year through art therapy sessions at Home Base.

The clinic is part of Mass. General Hospital, and it was founded in 2009 with the help of the Red Sox Foundation. It expanded in 2015 and moved to a state-of-the-art facility in Charlestown. Home Base’s directors say it’s the largest private sector mental health clinic that helps veterans, service members and their families heal from the “invisible wounds of war.”

This has been a particularly difficult year for U.S. veterans and active members of the military: The fast and violent end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan in August left many troops reeling. And there was another blow the following month, when the government released sobering data showing military suicides rose 15% in 2020.

Home Base says it has experienced an uptick in calls this year requesting services.

Home Base has an art therapy program in which veterans paint masks. The outside of the mask represents how they project themselves to the world; the inside represents what they're really feeling. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Home Base has an art therapy program in which veterans paint masks. The outside of the mask represents how they project themselves to the world; the inside represents what they’re really feeling. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The mask painting is meant to help the vets process what they’re feeling inside. Jennifer Kneeland, an expressive art therapist and licensed mental health counselor at Home Base, watches Hicks create.

“Do you feel like it supports the rest of your day, the rest of your week?” she asks. “Yeah. You know, I think so,” Hicks responds. “I think, you know, at least I feel as though I can often worry less …”

Hicks is about to turn 40, and he’s from Weymouth. He served in the Air Force from 2001 to 2010. He trained as a Middle East language specialist and analyzed intelligence in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He had to figure out where the enemy was — information that got relayed to troops on the ground.

It was a lot of pressure for a man in his 20s.

“Like, knowing that those guys were getting put in danger,” he recalls. “And if you didn’t do your job well enough, then maybe some little kid’s finding out Daddy’s not coming home, you know?”

Hicks struggled after leaving the military. He went to school on the GI Bill, but couldn’t find direction. He missed feeling the sense of purpose he found in the military, he says. He had depression and PTSD and started getting mental health care at the VA, but it wasn’t enough.

“I was pretty well and truly devoid of hope. … I realized, like, I’m either going to pull myself out of this or I’m going to die in it.”

John Hicks

This past summer, Hicks says, he had a bit of a breakdown.

“I was pretty well and truly devoid of hope,” Hicks says. “Just all of it was kind of crashing down on me, and I realized, like, I’m either going to pull myself out of this or I’m going to die in it.”

He finally took out a business card he had been carrying around in his wallet for more than two years. It was from a veteran he knew, who’s an outreach worker at Home Base.

That’s how the center connects people to its services — veteran to veteran.

Hicks was able to get into Home Base’s two-week Intensive Clinical Program not long after he made that call — because unlike most mental health health programs around the country, it has space.

Air Force veteran John Hicks talks with Jennifer Kneeland, expressive art therapist and licensed mental health counselor, as he paints a mask. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Air Force veteran John Hicks talks with Jennifer Kneeland, expressive art therapist and licensed mental health counselor, as he paints a mask. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Program officials say they meet and communicate with veterans’ service providers and organizations around the country to get the word out about the program, but some who’ve served in the military still don’t know it exists. It’s tied through the Warrior Care Network to similar programs in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Home Base has provided care to more than 1,600 clients so far this year, according to a spokeswoman. About 400 veterans and service members from around the U.S. — and a small number from other countries — go through the intensive program in a given year.

“[The clients] do their whole two weeks of care, which is nearly a year’s worth of therapy — about 70 hours of care — they do that all together as a group of 10 to 12 people,” says Laura Harward, a licensed clinical social worker who directs the Intensive Clinical Program. “And that can make a really big difference in one, just reconnecting with other people who have been through something similar and two, validating and normalizing what they’ve been through, as well.”

The vets don’t spend a penny. All of the services, even those not covered by insurance, are free — mostly funded by philanthropy. They include daily group and individual therapy, some of it specifically for PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. Vets learn how to identify warning signs for when suicidal thoughts might intensify, and how to follow a safety plan.

And a family member or friend joins them for several days to learn how to support them.

But it isn’t all therapy and tough stuff. Home Base clinicians say clients experience more healing when their whole body is part of the picture. So there are tai chi, yoga, nutrition and fitness classes.

Athletic trainer and strength conditioning specialist Chris Manzano watches as Ryan Campbell does band exercises in the gym at Home Base in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Athletic trainer and strength conditioning specialist Chris Manzano watches as Ryan Campbell does band exercises in the gym at Home Base in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Army Reserves veteran Ryan Campbell, of Medford, says working out here, people get him — and give him structure. That’s important as he confronts anxiety he says was exacerbated after deploying to Iraq.

“You can feel overwhelmed and, you know, not want to be in crowds of people, like that kind of stuff,” Campbell says. “But I find when I work out, you know, that a lot of it just goes away.”

The director of the health and fitness program, Army veteran Ryan Vanderweit, understands that feeling.

“Fitness and wellness ultimately, in many ways, saved my life. It was the only thing I really had an opportunity to turn to when I got out,” he reflects. “And I know the power of it.”

James Knauer adds more weigh to the weight bar in the gym at Home Base in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
James Knauer adds more weigh to the weight bar in the gym at Home Base in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Vanderweit says some vets who enter the fitness-specific program at Home Base aren’t yet ready to address their PTSD or depression head-on. But exercising with military peers opens the door to that care.

“Building the relationship and building the … camaraderie between us and the veterans and the participants who come to this program is absolutely huge, because what we see is that the trust is starting to build,” he says. “And we’ll get calls and text messages saying, ‘Hey, I need help,’ because now they feel comfortable with letting us know this.”

John Hicks is glad he made that call for help.

“I still have my issues, but I’m dealing with them a lot better,” he says. “And I feel hopeful toward the future, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for years.”

He says after going through the intensive program at Home Base, he felt a calling to help other vets. He sought out and got a job with the Wounded Warrior Project in Chicago and will move there soon.

“I feel hopeful toward the future, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for years.”

John Hicks

As for the inside of the mask, he’s painted it a bright red, like the under-side of our skin. And he’s painted images of dark stitches, sewn into it.

“It’s showing the damage. You know, it’s showing what’s been broken, so to speak, on the inside,” he says. “But it’s also the fact that it’s stitched up, it’s showing that it’s been kind of attended to, that it’s in the process of healing.”

He hopes to pay that healing forward.

Air Force veteran John Hicks paints the inside of his mask. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Air Force veteran John Hicks paints the inside of his mask. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Resources: If you’re a veteran or service member in mental health crisis, or you know one, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) and press 1.

This segment aired on November 11, 2021.