SUFFOLK COUNTY—Elected officials and various veterans organizations are urging the state Legislature to restore funding for a program that provides peer-to-peer support for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other adjustment conditions.
The Joseph P. Dwyer Project, which is named after a Long Island veteran who lost his battle with PTSD in 2008, has served over 10,000 veterans across the county since its inception in 2012. The Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans oversee the program.
New York State’s executive budget this year included no funding for the project, compared to last year when 23 counties across the state received $3.735 million in funding.
“It is our profound duty to serve our veterans both home and abroad,” said Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone during a press conference in Hauppauge last week. “Oftentimes when our veterans return home, they carry scars with them.”
Bellone’s office said he will be traveling to the Hudson Valley and western New York in the coming weeks, trying to build support among state and local officials for the program.
“The Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project has a proven track record of assisting our veterans to regain their lives and I urge Albany to reverse course immediately and fund this vital program,” Bellone said.
New York State Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) believes, due to the broad support for the program, that funding will be restored before the budget’s deadline on April 1.
Brooks, who was recently named chair of the state’s Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee, said representatives from all 23 counties that the program serves in NYS have spoken to him about the importance of restoring the funding.
“These are heroes helping heroes,” Brooks said, noting that state Senate not only hopes to restore the amount from last year’s funding, but has also called for an additional $1 million. “The urgent need for this program, and others like it, is evident in the needs of those suffering from their experiences, and our first goal is to make sure they know that they have not been forgotten,” Brooks said, adding his opinion that the programs should be taken nationwide.
John Damato, a 56-year-old Iraq War veteran who served in Baghdad from 2004-2005, says he didn’t feel the effects of PTSD until years after returning home to Long Island. He recalled being home alone one day when something “triggered” him. “I couldn’t even walk my dogs,” he said. “That’s how bad I was.”
Damato originally sought help from the VA. He praised the agency, but said there aren’t enough resources to treat the amount of veterans who need help. Damato eventually learned about the Joseph P. Dwyer Project. “It has helped me so much,” he said, adding that before participating in the program, he wouldn’t have been able to go out in public, let alone speak in front of group like he did last week. Damato has since become a facilitator with the program.
New York State Assemblyman Steve Stern (D-Huntington) and Suffolk County Legis. Susan Berland (D-Commack), who serves as chairwoman of the Suffolk County Legislature’s Veterans Committee, also spoke in support of the program and urged Albany to restore its funding. Nassau County executive Laura Curran was scheduled to speak during the meeting last week, but was unable to attend.
The event came a few days after the American Legion, the largest veterans organization in New York State, lobbied Albany to restore the project’s funding. The program is named after Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident who enlisted in the United States Army after Sept. 11 and went on to become a combat medic in the 3rd Infantry Division.
Dwyer gained national attention after a photograph of him carrying a wounded Iraqi boy, while his unit was fighting its way into Baghdad, became heavily publicized. Some have said, in more recent years, the famous photo embodied many of the ideals that Americans wanted to believe about the Iraq War, which began in 2003.
Five years after the war began, Dwyer found himself in and out of treatment for addiction and PTSD. His delusions and bouts of violent rage, brought on by his deteriorating mental state, caused his wife to became fearful and leave with their young daughter.
Dwyer was eventually found dying in his North Carolina apartment, reportedly surrounded by pill bottles and paint solvents. He was 31 at the time of his death.
It has long been reported that an average of 20 veterans in the United States suffering from PTSD die by suicide every day. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed a slightly higher number in a report from last year. The results found that the number of daily suicides (20.6) is made up of both veterans (16.8) and active-duty service members (3.8). These numbers amount to 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members who die from suicide in a given year.
Army veteran Ralph Mims was homeless before seeking help from the program, which he said, “led [him] in the right direction” with its various services that include helping to find employment and education opportunities.
As he stood alongside his wife and four children, Mims remarked, “I hope the funding in the budget is restored because I don’t know where I would be right now.”