Long Journey Back: Diplomacy, Conflict, Neuroscience, and the Promise of ABI Wellness
Ambassador Hugo Llorens
ABI Wellness Investor Meeting
August 22, 2019
Vancouver, British Columbia
It’s a great pleasure being here at the Watson Center located on the great facility here in the Fortious Sports and Health Centre in Burnaby. Let me thank the ABI Wellness team for organizing this presentation, and thank you all for attending. Indeed, it’s fantastic to be back in Beautiful Vancouver, one of my favorite cities. I am even more excited about being asked by my old friend Howard Eaton, and my new friend Mark Watson, to join the wonderful team they have assembled at ABI Wellness, and become a member of their Business Advisory Board.
As many of you know, I had the great honor and sheer pleasure, along with my wife Lisett and my two sons, Andrew and Dirk, to serve as the Consul General in this fair city back in 1999-2002. I was the senior U.S. official responsible for maintaining relations with British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. I worked with NDP and Liberal governments. We worked all the issues, starting with softwood lumber (hey, I sure am glad I am not dealing with that anymore!). We worked on Pacific Salmon, cross-border crime and security, and gas pipeline issues in the Yukon and Beaufort Sea. I quickly learned that in the Vancouver portfolio it’s “the BORDER STUPID!” So, I coordinated closely with the Premiers, and the Governors across the way, including the Governors of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho to facilitate cross border movement, connectivity, trade and investment – community to community. This was not some kind of arcane and opaque geostrategic game, but a real day-to-day living relationship between the people of Cascadia on both sides of the border – one of the most economically advanced and integrated regions of the world. It was and is about two peoples proud of their individual sovereign heritage, and historic and political institutions, but sharing the common values of freedom, the rule of law, justice, and open markets. I learned that American and Canadian Cascadians cherish the wondrous natural beauty we share, and the importance of preserving our pristine environment for ourselves and future generations. Our communities, entrepreneurs and corporate entities were and are partnering on both sides of the border in the fields and industries of cutting-edge information technology, aerospace, high tech defense, film and entertainment, and health and medicine. Ours is a “win-win” relationship that generates billions of dollars in wealth, creates high paying jobs on both sides of the border and makes our economies the most competitive in the world. In the global economy of the 21st century, the nation states that are more integrated, that have more fluid access to global capital and investable funds, that are open and can absorb new technologies and new ways of doing things, will be the most empowered and successful. The more autarchic you are, the more you look to the past, the less sovereign you will be. North Korea is a prime example: they cannot feed themselves and are totally dependent on Chinese largesse to survive. By contrast, for Americans and Canadians, our success on the global stage enhances our respective and individual sovereignty and empowers our people.
We all know that the last couple of years have not been easy for U.S.-Canadian relations. I am sorry to say that the current U.S. Administration has not been adept at smoothly managing our bilateral ties. Hey, maybe there was a case to make for updating NAFTA – an agreement that despite imperfections has served the U.S., Canada, and Mexico pretty well, and I hope that the U.S. Congress soon enacts the USMCA. However, all of this could have been done more efficiently, with more goodwill and less pain and acrimony. We can only hope that the Administration learns some lessons along the way, and that we regain and stay on the path of amity and cooperation. Because the reality is that we are not the same. We are proud and separate nations who value our dignity and independence. We should start by celebrating and respecting each other’s unique institutions and diversity. Yet, at the same we cannot deny we are sibling nations. We are brothers and sisters who live and share a common homeland — the blessed continent of North America. We are young immigrant nations made up of people from every corner of the globe who have come to breathe free and thrive and prosper in our experiment with liberty that our two nations, in our own unique way, affords its citizens.
I was here on September 11, 2001, a day of infamy that none of us will ever forget. With the horrible news coming out of Lower Manhattan, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, there were also scenes of great courage and heroism, and across Canada there was a remarkable outpouring of sympathy and solidarity that likes of which I have never seen. The tens of thousands of flowers and condolence messages left at our Consulate offices moved all of us, and eased our pain. September 11 changed the world, and altered life on earth as we know it. It also certainly impacted my career path. Bottom line is that in the things that matter most, we are one.
Well, as you can see I am passionate about the U.S.-Canada relationship, and this carries over to the personal side. My wife, Lisett, and my two sons, Andrew and Dirk, savored our incredible three years living in Vancouver. Our kids attended Shaughnessy Elementary. The four of us traveled across the majesty of BC and the Yukon. The four of us forged many friendships with the wonderful people of British Columbia and many of these friendships have lasted to this very day.
Now as inevitably happens for wandering diplomats, the path can take you further and further away. I left Vancouver in July 2002 and returned to Washington where I served on President Bush’s National Security Council staff. Serving in the White House in the wake of September 11 was grim, but it was also fascinating and gave me a ringside seat on momentous decisions that would impact the future of all of us. From Washington the family and I were assigned to Buenos Aires, where I was the Deputy Chief of Mission or the Deputy Ambassador. Our task in that assignment centered on helping Argentina recover from the economic and financial devastation caused by the collapse of convertibility at the end of 2001. An economic crisis so deep that it precipitated the fall of four Presidents in a span of weeks. From there we went to Madrid as Deputy Ambassador. In Madrid we worked in tandem with a close NATO ally. In Spain the U.S. military presence at the Moron air base and the Rota naval base served as hubs for our logistical movements of men and materiel into the Iraq and Afghan theaters of battle. In 2008, I was nominated by President Bush to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Honduras. In Honduras we dealt with three years of political turmoil including the coup crisis of June 2009. In the end we were able to put the pieces back together, and free and fair elections were a critical element to restoring the constitutional order. A bit weary, I returned to DC as the Ambassador in Residence at the National War College. The National War College is located in Fort McNair, Washington DC, a historic site where the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers converge. It is also the pre-eminent institution where we teach the best of our Colonel-level military officers, and their civilian equivalents in the diplomatic and intelligence communities, the art and science of Grand Strategy, or the utilization of the nation’s diplomatic, intelligence, economic and military power in a synchronized manner for the achievement of core international goals and objectives. Following my year at the War College I served my first tour in Afghanistan in the period 2012-13. In Afghanistan I was in the unique situation of being one of five Ambassadors in what was the largest Embassy in the world. Why five Ambassadors? Well, at the time the U.S. had 100,000 combat troops in the country, and there were an additional 45,000 NATO forces, including a sizeable Canadian contingent. With more than 200 Flag Rank military officers in Afghanistan (that is Generals and Admirals) we needed multiple Ambassadors to maintain some hierarchic symmetry with our military partners. As Ambassador and Assistant Chief of Mission I was effectively the COO of an Embassy with a staff of 8,500 U.S., Afghan and Third Country National Employees representing 22 U.S. government agencies. Following a wonderful three-year sojourn in Sydney where I was the Principal Officer, I returned to Afghanistan in late 2016 at the request of Secretary of State John Kerry. Secretary Kerry asked me to lead our Embassy in the transition between the Administrations of President Obama and President Trump. By the time I returned, I was the only Ambassador with an Embassy the same size, but a vastly reduced U.S. and NATO military presence of 15,000 troops, and mostly in a support or advisory role. My principal tasks during the year I was in Kabul was to manage our bilateral relations with the National Unity Government of President Ghani, lead our splendid cadre of diplomats and assist President Trump and his National Security Team get their bearings and fashion a new strategic policy direction for the U.S. in Afghanistan and South Asia. I believe we were successful in our efforts, and the Trump Administration policies actually provide us a unique opportunity to achieve an Afghan-owned and led political settlement that ends the conflict and preserves U.S. and coalition equities in the region – so stay tuned. Although I was offered several Ambassadorships as a reward, helping my aging parents and the mere fact that we had been in diplomacy and on the road for 36 years, prompted our decision to retire at the end of 2017.
Let me just say this, of all my fascinating experiences professionally and personally Afghanistan was a truly transformational experience for me, and for so many who have had the opportunity to serve in such a complex and conflict-ridden nation. During my tenure in Afghanistan I lost members of our Embassy team as a result of Taliban attacks. In one instance in April 2013, I lost one of our Press Attaches, Anne Smedinghoff. Anne was going to a book donation at a local school in Zabul province when her civilian-military team was ambushed by a suicide bomber. She was a young officer in her 20s. A beautiful and brilliant girl, she was brimming with energy, enthusiasm and talent. It was devastating for her family and everyone one of us who knew her. In this regard, let me mention that so many of our American, Canadian and coalition partners,’ military and civilian, have either perished as a result of traumatic brain injury, or have had their lives completely disrupted by traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. What I saw close-up was that our soldiers serving in Afghanistan have done multiple deployments. Indeed, of the 2 million U.S. troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 800,000 have had multiple deployments, many five or more combat tours. Of these the Department of Defense estimates that 115,000 have suffered Traumatic Brain Injuries mostly as a result of being subjected to roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The Defense Department numbers may be conservative. The Brain Injury Association of America estimated the number at 360,000 and the RAND Corporation has suggested that it could be as high as 400,000. I suppose part of the uncertainty in the numbers is that TBI is difficult to diagnose, and that some soldiers may be reluctant to be diagnosed. In a recent study, the Pentagon found that 60 percent of the soldiers who suffered TBI symptoms refused help because they worried it would affect their careers within or outside the military. The bottom line is that the issue of veterans suffering from TBI is a huge one that is causing untold hardship to these good people and their families who have sacrificed so much. It also has a disruptive effect on our society in terms of the well-being and productivity of our veterans. So this is an issue that is very much part of my legacy in Afghanistan, and if I am in position to help in some way, I will.
As I mentioned, in between my two expeditionary tours in Afghanistan, Lisett and I had a wonderful three years in Australia where I led the U.S. diplomatic mission in Sydney. Like Vancouver, Sydney was another wondrous city, in an amazing country. In Sydney, U.S. policy, as well as my own personal interest in these issues led me to promote collaboration with our Australian colleagues in the area of neuroscience, and in seeking Australia’s association with President Obama’s Brain Initiative.
In addition to my deep concern for our veterans, I recall telling my sports mad Aussie friends that Junior Seau (SAY-ow) was arguably one of the greatest linebackers ever to play in the National Football League. For 20 years, he gave everything he had on the field. Off the field, he was an excellent businessman and a strong advocate for child abuse prevention.
In 2012, at the age of 43, Junior Seau committed suicide.
His family generously donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health. Tests determined that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurological disorder common among football and hockey players and boxers. It is characterized by dementia, irritability, and memory loss. And it is becoming more recognized as a common problem in retired players.
Over the course of a career, football, rugby and hockey players – along with other athletes in high impact sports – are subject to thousands of hits that jar the brain, leading to injury. Scientists studying the brains of football players report that almost all of them show evidence of CTE. In recent years, cases of dementia, erratic behavior, and suicide among former players have gotten increased media attention.
Knowing more about how the brain functions – and about what a normal brain looks like – might one day help doctors reverse the damage. It could help ensure that athletes in high-impact sports can look forward to long and healthy lives after retirement.
And, for those of us who are slightly less athletic, a better understanding of the brain could lead to better treatments for more common brain disorders. The good news is that policymakers are finally taking notice and providing more support. And that support will – we hope – help us make the breakthroughs in the treatment of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury that affect millions of people every day.
Aside from the very important fact that treatment could give millions of people a better quality of life, it will also have a very important effect on our economies. The costs of brain disorders – in both human and economic terms – are staggering.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates the cost of the disease at $200 billion per year in the U.S. alone. Direct and indirect costs – ranging from hospital bills to lost productivity – of Parkinson’s are estimated at between $10.8 and $14.4 billion annually. Traumatic brain injuries account for more than $76 billion per year. The scale of the problem is enormous and the impact, especially on patients and families, is life changing. The good news is that even small advances can make a huge difference.
Every year in the United States, Canada – and around the world – government agencies, universities, research institutes, and pharmaceutical firms spend billions of dollars on neurological disorders. But we need to do more, and as we will learn, ABI Wellness is one of those important tools in the way forward.
The BRAIN Initiative
And so, several years ago while I was serving in Sydney, President Obama introduced the BRAIN Initiative to help us do just those things. The President dedicated several hundred million dollars to improve our understanding of the human brain and to develop better ways to diagnose, treat, and cure brain disorders. The good news is that despite not much in the way of fanfare, the Trump Administration has continued to invest in the Brain Initiative. Through this initiative our hope is that we can eventually map the brain as we did with the human genome. We also hope that a concentrated investment will prove to be the push that is needed to make great strides in understanding the brain.
The BRAIN Initiative involves coordination between numerous U.S. government agencies. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ACD Working Group has identified nine high priority areas for research that range from generating a census of cell types in the brain to mapping the brain to developing new tools to linking the activity of neurons to behaviors.
The NIH will work to develop tools to map the brain and to figure out how brain circuits lead to cognition and behavior. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working in parallel to unlock the mysteries of the brain. Among DARPA’s projects, is researching the effects of stress on the brain – a project which could make a real difference to soldiers all over the world. The National Science Foundation is investing in research in a variety of interdisciplinary projects that will, among other things, help develop new tools and technologies.
In his speech introducing the BRAIN Initiative, the President called on businesses, universities, philanthropists, and health systems to join with us in this effort. He did this in part because we know the value of these types of partnerships.
But we also know that neither government nor the private sector working alone will be enough to get a job this complex done.
Let me illustrate. The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990. Funded by the U.S. government, specifically the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, to the tune of $3 billion dollars, it was a massive public and private effort to achieve a single goal. It sparked similar efforts in countries around the world as scientists made the case to their governments that they, too, needed to work toward this goal. More importantly, the data were shared and freely available. By 2003, the project was completed.
The effort that it took is repaid multiple times every year. Scientists continue to make new discoveries about the causes of cancers. They are improving doctors’ ability to safely screen for chromosomal disorders in fetuses. They are learning more about genetic diseases. Sequencing the human genome has dramtaically improved the ways in which doctors can diagnose and treat their patients.
During my time in Sydney we established a series of public-private partnerships to advance the goals of the BRAIN Initiative and to make difference in the lives of those suffering from brain injuries and diseases.
So this is why I am here today. In my retirement I have three callings: do some good, enjoy time with friends and family, and try to make a little bit of honest money. My love and affection for Canada has been a motivating factor. To be reconnected with this wonderful community in Vancouver and British Columbia means a lot to me. To be able to work with Howard Eaton, a man who has been a good friend since the year 2000, and someone who has helped thousands of children suffering from learning disabilities. In my case, my two sons, Andrew and Dirk, were afflicted with learning disabilities. Thanks to Howard’s clinical eye, he was able to diagnose their individual problems and develop simple and practical approaches to deal with their weaknesses that proved life changing for both. Both of my sons went on to academic success at excellent universities and are
both fulfilling their professional dreams in the private sector. So when Howard approached me about joining ABI Wellness I was interested and I took a close look. What I have learned is that ABI is a social venture that offers a practical four stage method to help people suffering from traumatic brain injury recover and become useful members of society once again. They have assembled a motivated and highly talented team to implement this model through pilot programs and clinical trials in a medical field where the future is now. An area that fuses medicine and education to ease suffering, and potentially help thousands of people, civilians and military, live more normal and productive lives. I am excited about being in a position to provide some strategic guidance and facilitate the connections that will help the ABI Wellness model become an important part of the solution in the field of traumatic brain injury.
Again, it is great to be back in BC, and thank you for coming.