One step at a time

They've always been close. So when Jonathan Zagami returned from Iraq suffering from PTSD, his sister Jaime went the extra mile to help.

Army veteran Jonathan Zagami and his sister, Jaime, run in South Boston. Army veteran Jonathan Zagami and his sister, Jaime, run in South Boston. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / May 22, 2010

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Four days after he turned 18, in May 2002, Jonathan Zagami enlisted in the Army Reserves and shipped out with the first ground forces that invaded Iraq. A combat engineer, he cleared minefields, did demolition work, and built camps and guard towers for the soldiers.

“I’d help load guys on the plane who were all shot up,’’ he says, recalling one soldier who had lost a leg. “I said, ‘Dude, I feel so bad for you.’ He said, ‘I feel bad for you. I’m going home.’ That was a real gut check for me.’’

Zagami had left his Needham home after high school graduation an outgoing, affable teenager: “everybody’s friend,’’ as he puts it. He returned home two years later an angry, profane stranger.

“He couldn’t even let us hug him when he first came back,’’ says his sister, Jaime.

When Jonathan and Jaime cross home plate with 3,000 others tomorrow at Fenway Park, it will be just the latest milestone the brother and sister have reached since he returned from Iraq, a wounded warrior, six years ago. They’re participating in the 9K Run To Home Base, a fund-raiser sponsored by the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital. The race benefits Home Base, a new partnership between the two organizations to treat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury — the two signature wounds of the wars.

The program began percolating in Tom Werner’s mind after the Red Sox visited veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following the 2007 World Series championship. Werner, chairman of the Red Sox, was shocked at the high percentage of soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The Pentagon recently announced that mental health disorders caused more hospitalizations among US troops last year than any other reason, accounting for 40 percent of all days spent in hospitals.

“I thought that somehow, between the Red Sox and Mass. General, we could create a program that could be of real assistance, that could become a model,’’ says Werner.

When Jaime Zagami heard about the run, she signed up for herself and her brother. “This race was made for us,’’ says Jaime, 24. “Jonathan has traumatic brain injury and PTSD, and he has always been a huge Red Sox fan.’’

If Jonathan has a guardian angel, it’s his younger sister. Every single day he was gone, Jaime wrote to her brother, who is 2 years older. She sent him 50-pound weekly shipments of goodies: food, CD mixes, newspapers and magazines, wipes because he couldn’t shower for days at a time. At Christmas, she sent Santa Claus hats for him and his friends. For the women in his unit, she sent “girly things.’’

“They’ve been best friends since they’ve been together on the planet,’’ says their mother, Karen Nolan, a nurse practitioner. “She’s crazy about him, and he was always protective of her.’’

There’s been a bit of role reversal, with Jaime determined to re-discover her beloved big brother inside the brooding soldier. A few months after he came back from war, the two entered UMass-Amherst together, where their sister Jill was a senior.

It was a disaster. It was fall of 2004, and he was one of the first veterans back on campus. He suffered night terrors that freaked out his roommate. He was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. If anyone looked at him the wrong way, he’d fight. He was 20 years old, a combat veteran, and couldn’t relate to the drunken antics of the other freshmen. Why would they blow off class or walk around campus in pajamas?

“The dorm was filthy,’’ he recalls. “It was so disrespectful that kids would just puke on the floor and leave it.’’

Always neat, Jonathan was now military-fastidious. On a recent work evening, he’s dressed in pinstriped pants and a white shirt, his black shoes shining like mirrors. “I polish them every day,’’ he says.

The South Boston apartment he shares with two roommates on the top floor of a triple-decker isn’t fancy. But General Patton would approve of his room: shoes lined up in neat rows, ties and belts hanging from their own racks, suits on one side of the closet, shirts on the other.

One dresser top contains the artifacts of war: an Iraqi bayonet, a good conduct award and Army achievement medal — and the gold guardian angel pin his mother gave him, which he tacked onto his rucksack. An Iraqi stop sign is propped against a wall.

In the living room, Jonathan, 26, finishes a takeout dinner and tries to explain what happened to him. His words spill over each other, and they’re liberally sprinkled with the f-bomb. Jaime sits beside him, inserting an occasional, gentle: “Jon, you’re digressing.’’

The lowest point came midyear as a freshman, when he suffered a stroke. From school, Jaime drove him to the VA Hospital in West Roxbury where doctors found that he had an enlarged heart from untreated high blood pressure. He was also diagnosed with PTSD. He revealed that he’d suffered serious head injuries in Iraq — something he hadn’t bothered telling his family. He’d been knocked out for several hours by a vicious kick in the head during crowd control and at least twice by mortar fire.

Back at school after the stroke, he struggled. Even years later, the story is hard for him to tell, and hard for his sister to hear; both wipe tears from their eyes.

Jonathan couldn’t sit with his back to anyone, or to a door: the spectre of snipers still haunted him. He arrived at class early so he could get a seat in the back row. He walked through campus in a zig-zag pattern looking for rooftop snipers. He couldn’t deal with crowds or noise. His short-term memory was shot, and he couldn’t figure out how to study. He’d show up for class at a wrong time and forget his exam schedule. Unable to sleep, he’d get up in the middle of the night and run around campus until he threw up.

Jaime decided to keep an even closer eye on him; he moved into a dorm next to hers, and they signed up for the same classes.

“I knew he was smart enough to do well, he just needed someone to remind him, ‘Did you do this? Did you make flash cards?’ ’’ In class, she’d elbow him and whisper, “Write this down! This is going to be on the exam!’’ They ate meals and went to the gym together.

“I wouldn’t have graduated college if not for her,’’ says Jonathan. “She contacted professors when I was in the hospital. She scheduled my classes, my makeup work and tests. She helped me study. She helped me talk to people and make friends.’’

With an Afghanistan veteran, they founded a campus group called the Veterans and Service Members Association to help returning vets transition to student life. The organization is still active on campus. “I think it helped us together get through what he was going through,’’ says Jaime.

At graduation in 2008, they stood side-by-side, arms linked. She graduated with high honors in political science, he with a degree in resource economics. “I was just lucky to be there,’’ he says. He now works in sales for Liberty Mutual; Jaime works for the Boston University School of Medicine.

After years of being treated at a plethora of hospitals, including many trips to West Point, Jonathan has now joined the Home Base program at Mass. General. He’s got a growth on his pituitary gland, an enlarged heart, chronic fatigue, poor peripheral vision, along with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Tomorrow, all four of the Zagamis, including older siblings Jason and Jill, will run, along with 20 other team members, most of them veterans. Their team is called No Man Left Behind, and they’ve raised more than $35,000. Only Jerry Remy’s team and the Red Sox Foundation’s team have raised more.

The Zagamis’ family and friends will be in Fenway Park, cheering the siblings on. It goes without saying that Jaime and Jonathan will cross home plate together.

Bella English can be reached at