Lawmakers from the Hudson Valley are among those calling for funding in the New York state budget for a veterans peer support program. They want to sustain the program in the counties where it already exists, and expand it elsewhere in the state.
The Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project began in Suffolk County as a pilot program in 2012, providing peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans and their families. It has since been extended to 23 counties in New York. Democratic first-term state Senator Jen Metzger represents the 42nd District.
“It’s incredibly successful. There’s a highly regarded vet-to-vet program in Orange County, which is part of my district. And the veterans organizations, advocates in other parts of my district — Sullivan County, Ulster County — are really interested and in need of this program there,” Metzger says. “And I think it’s particularly important because these are more rural areas. Social isolation is a much bigger problem in rural areas. There’s a higher incidence of suicide, and having that connection, that peer-to-peer connection through this program is critical. It’s a critical support.”
She points to a New York State Health Foundation study released at the end of January. The study on veteran suicide in the state shows that, although New York has one of the lowest rates of veteran suicide in the country, 136 veterans in the state died by suicide in 2017 — one nearly every other day. The study also says that between 2005 and 2017, the suicide rate for New York veterans ages 18 to 34 more than doubled. And from 2015 to 2017, Livingston, Columbia and Wyoming Counties experienced the highest rates of veteran suicide in New York.
Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, during his state-of-the-county address last week, thanked state Senator Sue Serino and Democratic Assemblymember Didi Barrett for advocating for the program.
“We will again support Senator Sue Serino’s fight to restore state funding for the successful Private Dwyer vet-to-vet mediation program,” says Molinaro.
Serino, a Republican whose 41st District also includes part of Putnam County, says the program is important.
“Why would you ignore our veterans? It’s a program, in Dutchess County it’s $185,000. Not a lot of money, but they do such good work with that money,” Serino says. “We have people that are coming back with mental health issues. They help them find housing. They do so many great things. Somebody needs a wheelchair, whatever they need, our guys are there for them.”
Serino’s call echoes that of Democrat John Brooks, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs. Brooks held a press conference earlier this month with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers who want the funding included in a final budget deal. Serino joins him in pushing for the $4.4 million it would take to maintain and expand the Dwyer Program.
Joseph Dwyer served in Iraq in the Army, was featured on the cover of Time magazine rescuing an Iraqi boy and, in 2008, died of an apparent drug overdose.
Metzger wants to see the program expanded as well.
“And, in the past, counties have gotten grants from the state from between $100,000-$185,000 to support these programs,” says Metzger.
“It is an embarrassment. And I say with due respect that the state executive budget year in and year out does not include this critical funding,” Molinaro says. “Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature have come year in and year out to restore that funding. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
The proposed executive budget does include $5 million to help address veteran homelessness and $1 million to support suicide prevention efforts among veterans, law enforcement and first responders.