U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Keaton Sr. loves everything about baseball, down to collecting trading cards.
His idol was Ted Williams, the Hall of Fame outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps twice.
But when Keaton was injured after a bomb exploded during his deployment in Iraq, he never thought his love of baseball would help him overcome a traumatic brain injury and help treat his case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Keaton, 39, came to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda two years ago, and spent a lot of time in the occupational therapy unit. Doctors at Walter Reed were trying to get Keaton to be active and get his brain working again, but he found himself entirely unmotivated.
“I didn’t want to put puzzles together and figurines in holes and stuff like that,” Keaton said.
Once Keaton told his doctor about his love of baseball and that he collected baseball cards as a kid, she suggested he sort cards to get his brain moving. Keaton said that was when he wandered into a card shop a quarter of a mile away from his apartment in Silver Spring.
“I was in pretty bad shape,” Keaton remembered. “I just needed some cards.”
Ricky Huggins said his father, Bill Huggins, opened House of Cards in 1979 in Wheaton and moved to its current location on Silver Spring Avenue in 2001. Ricky Huggins has been helping his dad in the shop since he graduated college in 2010.
Huggins remembered meeting Keaton more than a year ago, when he entered the shop. Huggins said he gave Keaton a standard-size box with about 5,000 cards. He said Keaton was back in a week, hungry for more.
At first, Keaton said, he would sort the cards for four or five minutes, then rest. He would go back and do it all over again, sometimes for hours at a time.
Since he entered the shop, Keaton has received about 500,000 baseball cards from House of Cards, Huggins said.
“I couldn’t believe they were giving them to us for free,” Keaton said. “I had no motivation because I was so messed up. But I loved baseball so much, I was pushing myself to open another box because I wanted to see what cards were in there.”
As his health and memory have improved, Keaton said, he has become good friends with Huggins. Keaton said he sometimes goes to the shop just to talk baseball for an hour.
Struggling to find a way to give back, Keaton decided to present a special plaque as thanks for the cards, which played a huge part in his recovery.
Keaton said he couldn’t even sort the cards at first, but is now able to sort them into teams, years and positions.
“They did it with such a willingness to help. They didn’t want anything in return,” Keaton said. “That card shop has no idea how much they helped. I think it’s awesome what they did without asking for anything, without seeking any publicity.”
Since joining the Army in 1993, Keaton has been a combat soldier. He has deployed a handful of times, noting he was deployed more after Sept. 11, 2001, spending a total of six years overseas.
A bomb went off during his most recent deployment, leading to more than 100 seizures. He was diagnosed as having a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I couldn’t remember anything,” Keaton said. “My body was shaken.”
While he is more easily able to string together sentences, Keaton said there still are everyday activities that he can’t do. His wife makes appointments for him and makes sure he gets there on time.
“I was very well respected as a soldier, and then I just lost all of that ability to be who I was,” Keaton said. “It affects you in a million different ways — especially as a man. It takes your confidence, takes your pride, takes everything away from you as a person. It makes you realize how fragile your life is. Just like that you can become someone else.”
The baseball cards, Keaton said, helped him get back to the person he was.
“They don’t know how big of a deal it was that they motivated me,” Keaton said of the card shop. Seeing cards he had as a kid brought back memories of his childhood.
Keaton said he was a diehard Cincinnati Reds fan growing up in Indiana and liked Pete Rose, who played for the team from the 1960s to the mid-’80s.
Once the Washington Nationals came to D.C., Keaton — who now lives in Virginia — had a new favorite team. The hourlong chats between Keaton and Huggins often include the Nationals.
Huggins said the cost of donating the cards is significantly lower than the profit he gave up — they would not have yielded any sort of fortune. He said a lot of cards were ones donated to the shop by parents cleaning out closets when their kids head off to college.
While the shop wouldn’t buy common cards, the 10 to 20 people hoping to sell the cards were happy to donate them knowing that they were going toward a wounded service member’s recovery.
Now, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports military families, is setting up a partnership with the card shop so other soldiers in the occupational therapy wing of Walter Reed with traumatic brain injuries can sort cards for their recovery.
Jessica Allen, director of the Fund’s Family Caregiver Program, said many soldiers are returning from deployment with cases similar to Keaton’s. Sorting cards and doing puzzles like the ones at the occupational therapy unit in Bethesda have helped re-establish brain activity and hand-eye coordination.
She said baseball cards take a childhood love and bring it to life for an adult, reconnecting that passion to help injured service members to “put everything back together.”
“When you’re healing these guys, you have to figure out what can make their recovery successful,” Allen said. “These guys all served because they love our country. Now, they’ve been injured and that love has been taken away. Now, we have to find some way to incorporate something else they love.”
She said she hopes to establish the partnership in the next month, so Walter Reed patients can start taking advantage of the opportunity and start their healing process.
“Healing a hero is a big puzzle and we all have our pieces to put in,” Allen said.