LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Home Base Florida, an important partner of the David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health, helps veterans recover from the invisible wounds of their service. A Bonita Springs veteran said he lost nearly everything to PTSD, and Home Base saved his life.
"December 3, 1989. It was a Sunday of guard drill in Meridian, Mississippi," Bruce Larson, 67, said. "You could smell the jet fuel. You could smell death."
Larson was in the Air National Guard for ten years.
"You talk to anybody that's put on a flight suit or that's been flying airplanes; We are incredibly blessed to be able to have done that and to do that," he said.
He said he couldn't imagine hanging up his flight suit for good until something happened to his friend, George Dugas.
"Captain Larson and Captain Dugas. We were crewed together for five years, and I knew him like my own brother," he said.
Larson said the schedule changed that fateful day in December of 1989, and George flew with someone else.
"He says, 'Hey Bruce when we get done flying, I want to have lunch with you. There's something I want to tell you,'" Larson recalled.
They each got in their respective planes for a drill.
"We're flying out and about 17 seconds later, you hear 'Knock it off, knock it off, knock it off.' That means stop flying, we've had a problem. Well, I looked back and there was a fireball, and I knew right away that we'd lost an airplane," he said.
George's plane had gone down. Larson was the Flying Safety Officer for the squadron and was trained to take care of accidents.
"They handed us garbage bags and said 'Go out and find what you can,'" Larson said. "There were remains scattered over a quarter to a half-mile because the airplane hit a side of a hill, and just the explosion, just pieces, parts of the airplane and everything. We spent four and a half to five hours that afternoon trying to find remains. Those were our two best buddies that were in those garbage bags. Brothers, fathers, sons."
Larson said the hardest part was having to talk to George's wife.
"Obviously devastated. Three kids. Christmas time. And I asked her, I said, 'He put his arm around me and said let's eat lunch. What was he going to tell me?' And she said, 'He was going to tell you that that was his last flight, he was retiring,'" Larson said.
He said he was struggling to handle the death and everything he saw.
"I go to my commanding officer, chaplain, and flight surgeon, and I said, 'I'm struggling with this. I don't know how to handle this.' And back then the advice I got was 'Grow up, be a man and deal with it,'" he said.
Nine months later, Larson quit flying and took a job with the Academy of Military Science, but he was still having a hard time. His relationships suffered. He and his wife went their separate ways. He said he had post-traumatic stress disorder, and he kept having the same nightmare.
"His wife was right there saying, 'Bruce, why? Why?" he said.
Larson said he kept trying to move forward on his own. He reconnected with his elementary school sweetheart when her sister died in July of 2020, but that death sent him spiraling.
"It started to come out. It started to come out with my relationship with my new wife," Larson said. "And she said, 'You really need some help.' Well, I didn't know where to turn. I always heard of the crisis line. And the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was making that first phone call. I had to take my vulnerability, strip myself naked there, and say, 'I need help.'"
That's how Larson was connected to Home Base Florida and got the treatment he needed to get better, and now help others.
"I had phone calls every day from Home Base, helping me get set up," he said.
Home Base Florida is a non-profit dedicated to getting clinical care to veterans. Its Senior Director, Armando Hernandez, said they've partnered with the David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health in Naples to help other veterans like Larson.
“At least one in three veterans who are returning from deployment are dealing with one of the invisible wounds, whether that's traumatic brain injury or PTSD, or likely a combination of the two," Hernandez said.
Larson said his PTSD was triggered by reminders of what happened.
"A hefty black garbage bag," Larson said. "Sirens, fire departments, ambulances. I'd see them coming in the rear view mirror of a car, and I just went right back to the crash site and the whole bit.”
Through Home Base Florida, Larson got the treatment he needed.
"The repetitive training. They made me tell the story over and over again. The help, the breathing exercises," Larson said.
Since starting his treatment, Larson said he's been spreading the message of Home Base to others with PTSD.
"I’m a survivor. I'm here because of Home Base, and my wife and family,” he said. "Thank God for Home Base. That's all I can say."
If you or someone you know is in need of immediate help, call the David Lawrence Centers 24-hour phone line at (239) 455-8500.