Veteran John Raschilla finds cycling soothes war’s trauma

Last modified: Friday, December 07, 2012

Just about every day, John Raschilla suits up, puts on his helmet, grabs his bike and hits the road. He rides for 20 miles, maybe 30. And he doesn’t think all that much while the miles slip by.

“It’s great for calming the head down,” he says. “It’s almost like meditation.” Riding his bike, he says, keeps the person he calls “the bad guy” at bay, that guy who used to get so angry and agitated and who just felt “lost, so lost.”

Raschilla, 55, is an ex-Marine who served in the National Guard in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. A Springfield native, he lives in the Forest Park section of Springfield, with his wife, Laurie Caracciolo.

Raschilla’s is a recumbent bike, which allows him to ride without added strain to muscles and body parts. He came back battered and bruised from Iraq, he says, and has had nine operations, including two knee replacements and back surgery.

“Biking has given me the ability to function in a way I wasn’t able to since I got back and to feel somewhat normal again,” he says. “It’s gotten me out of the house. It’s made me feel good about myself. I’ve lost weight and it helps me with sleeping.”

Raschilla says injuries, ailments and age had put running and rock climbing out of reach. But when he noticed a recumbent bike at a gym, he figured it might do the trick. Sandra Diamond, a rehabilitation therapist at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, encouraged him to get one — and with it came a new mission.

“It’s gotten me back into helping other people out,” he said as he talked one day this fall in the basement man-cave his wife created for him. The furniture’s comfy, the TV’s big, and Red Sox and Yankees memorabilia cover the walls.

“She’s Yankees, I’m Red Sox,” he said.

Making connections

Through his involvement with a support group he attends at the VA in Leeds, Raschilla is now reaching other veterans who, like him, are dealing with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Raschilla, who’s now on disability from the military, says he suffered multiple head injuries in Iraq from exposure to incoming blasts. “That’s how they did everything over there, lobbing in missiles that exploded. You could never catch ‘em.”

He says he noticed the effects soon afterward. He started having problems with his vision — he’d look at a single object and see dozens, if not hundreds. He had trouble focusing and thinking straight, he says. He developed a confusing, severe stutter that he’d never had before.

“It was like something in my head just shut off. I couldn’t figure out the reasons my head was working that way,” he said.

When asked to describe what he felt like at his lowest, he is silent for a long minute.

Then he talks about the roiling mix of anger, frustration and rage that he used to be. “You hate everybody,” he said. “My emotional levels were all out of whack. The toughest thing I had to face was, my wife had a picture of me on the computer, and she says, ‘that’s the guy I want back.’”

Laurie Caracciolo says her husband came back from Iraq much moodier than he’d been. “I could see it right away,” she said. “It was like starting over with a different person.”

The biking helped.

“He gets all the stress and aggravation out,” she said. “I always know he’s going to come back feeling better.”

And now he likes to spread the word.

At the VA last July, Raschilla was the chief organizer for a daylong event about the benefits of exercise for veterans. The event featured speakers and a presentation by Northeast Passage, a New Hampshire organization that helps people with disabilities find ways to exercise and participate in recreation. Besides speaking to the gathering that day, Raschilla capped off the session by leading a bike ride for veterans through Look Park using recumbent bikes, hand cycles and trikes he’d arranged to have on hand.

“I felt like I was doing something that meant something,” he says. “And that gave me a lot of my confidence back.”

He’s also become a volunteer with the Wounded Warrior Project, a national effort to help soldiers transition back to civilian life.

“I know there’s a lot of guys out there who aren’t willing to say there’s something wrong with them,” he says.

One of the tragedies of Vietnam, he points out, is that the effects of trauma were so little understood that many soldiers suffered for decades. He doesn’t want to see that happen to the current generation of veterans.

Tough start

Raschilla says he grew up as a tough kid in Springfield who was accustomed to using his fists out on the street. He eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in 2000 in social work from Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee and later worked for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in Springfield, counseling former inmates with drug and alcohol abuse.

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Raschilla was sent to New Orleans with his National Guard unit.

“I saw stuff down there that really made me cold,” he says. “We just couldn’t save enough people. And then seeing bodies that had been in a house for days. ... ”

In Iraq, he was stationed at Camp Victory, a complex on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces that housed, among other operations, a U.S. hospital and several prisons.

Raschilla, who was in the infantry and was a supervisor for base operations and security, says that seeing badly wounded and maimed soldiers at the hospital was like reliving Katrina.

“Knowing people that died and being unable to do much about it really bothered me,” he says. “And not being able to fight back like I would want to really caused a lot of craziness in my head. I call it being the lion in the cage.”

By the time he left Iraq for home in 2008, Raschilla says he felt “totally burned out. I had no compassion for people. I remember on the plane, I could feel myself going into a deep depression.”

He did have one major advantage. He’d given up drinking 16 years earlier and he knew, he says, that there was “no friggin’ way” he’d make things worse by drinking again.

“I knew it would quickly cure my pain,” he says, “but I also knew it would only be adding gas to the fire.”

Raschilla says he sought help from counselors at Fort Dix, N.J., nearly as soon as he got off the plane. He was later referred to the Department of Veterans Affairs center in Newington, Conn., where he spent several months as an outpatient at a program for those with post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.

“It absolutely helped me,” he said. He gained a deeper understanding of PTSD and TBI — and, in a group with other vets, began venturing out more in public. When he first come home, he said, all he wanted was to stay home, away from people.

As part of his medical evaluations, Raschilla wound up at the VA in Leeds, where he joined the support group facilitated by speech-language pathologist Heather Morrison.

Morrison introduced Raschilla to a computer program called “My Bionic Brain,” a customized life management and day planner system for people with impaired memory.

Raschilla says it’s been “a godsend.” The program, which Raschilla has with him on a tablet at all times, helps him keep track of appointments, tasks and day-to-day information about anything from medications to notes about how his week is going to questions that he wants to ask his physical therapist at their next meeting.

“It’s really helped me tremendously,” he said, “and that means less anxiety.” He taps the tablet: “My other brain,” he said. “Right here.”

Looking ahead

This is how Raschilla describes himself now.

“I can’t understand why, but I just know that the gate to controlling my emotions, I can’t shut it off like I used to do. My fear can go from zero to 200 in two seconds. With sadness, I can go from OK to crying my eyes out. And I can’t remember things, stupid little things.

“I think the PTSD is something that I’m going to have to live with. If my mind ever goes back to being normal, I’d be real happy. But I realized that I had to find a new way to live.”

And this is how he assesses where he’s going.

“I think I’m 100 percent better than I was two years ago. I’d like to start a nonprofit bike therapy group here — that’s a goal right now that I have. I have something to look forward to, and that’s really good. The key for me is helping out another vet.”

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD

PTSD: Weakness or Wound? TIME U.S. Study links PTSD to Hidden Head Injuries Suffered in Combat University of Rochester Medical Center


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