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Finding the way home

(John Tlumacki/Globe staff)
June 4, 2012
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Dr. John A. Parrish


Parrish, the CEO of the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology and a longtime dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has just written a book about the traumatic legacy of his service in a military field hospital in Vietnam. Parrish is also head of the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program, which helps homeless veterans.

Q. It’s hard to believe, looking at your professional success, that you’ve struggled so much.

A. Part of the way I treated myself from all my bad experiences and terrible memories of Vietnam was to become a workaholic. That pushed my career.

Q. But you’ve obviously had some hard times personally.

A. For the last 40 years, I’ve had some difficulty with what is probably post-traumatic stress disorder, but it didn’t have a name when I first had the symptoms. At times I was homeless, living in my office or on the streets. I left my family. The only thing I was able to do well was my job.

Q. Your new book, “Autopsy of War,” is your second about your experiences in Vietnam. Why did you write it?

A. I wrote the book primarily because I couldn’t not write it. It became an addiction and a mission and a therapy. It was very therapeutic to write this all down.

Q. But you make a distinction between your need to write the book and then your decision to publish it.

A. I published it primarily to profile the invisible wounds of war. To raise the awareness of the 99.5 percent of Americans who don’t have any military obligations. I like to think of it as “comfort the wounded and wound the comfortable.”

Q. Do you consider yourself recovered now?

A. I think once you have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms you never are totally healed. But I am quite functional and feel much better. I think part of my recovery and therapy has been the Home Base program — to spend my time reaching out to other warriors with similar symptoms.

Q. Do you think the military is doing enough to help service members return to civilian life?

A. They spend years and years taking civilians and turning them into soldiers. But there has been no attention paid to “how do you turn a soldier back into a civilian?” I think the Department of Defense is increasingly aware of the magnitude of [that] challenge and they're starting to pay attention.

Q. And the Home Base program tries to fill some of those gaps?

A. Soldiers who need the help the most are least likely to seek help, because they’ve been trained to be so independent and not weak in any way. One of our challenges is to find these people and motivate them to seek help and then provide them with that help.

Q. Is one moral of your work and your book that it’s possible to get better, even though it doesn’t seem that way?

A. No matter how disturbed you are, help is possible. I put off any help-seeking behavior for decades. Finally, when I was crashing, I sought help and got much better. If you are willing to seek help it’s there.

Q. Do we have adequate treatments for PTSD?

A. The treatments are pretty good but not perfect. Someone has to make a real commitment to being better. I would say that 70 to 80 percent of warriors get 80- to 100-percent better. Part of the Home Base mission is to do the research it takes to develop new treatments and new diagnostics.

Karen Weintraub

This interview has been

edited and condensed. Karen

Weintraub can be reached at

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