A New York state Senator from the Hudson Valley and a Long Island county executive were in Rockland County Thursday standing alongside several veterans. They want New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to include funding in the budget due April 1 for a support program for veterans.
State Senator David Carlucci and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, both Democrats, along with area veterans are urging lawmakers to include $4.7 million to fund the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer-to-Peer Support Program across the state. Carlucci, who chairs the Senate Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, says the governor’s budget eliminates funding for the program.
“That’s why we’re standing here, shoulder to shoulder, to say in one collective voice that we not only need to restore the funding to the Joseph P. Dwyer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder program, but we have expand it,” Carlucci says. “And we’re fortunate that we have colleagues in the state Senate that have put forth a proposal that not only keeps the Dwyer program funded here in Rockland and counties across the state, but expands it to more counties and into New York City.”
The program is offered to veterans in 23 counties, including Rockland, Westchester and Suffolk. It helps service members suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, offering returning service members counseling through a peer-to-peer program that is military-friendly and feels familiar to veterans. Again, Carlucci.
“And this should be a model for the rest of the nation to follow,” says Carlucci.
The lawmakers and veterans were at BRIDGES in New City, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy and leadership on behalf of people with disabilities, and where the Veterans Peer Support Program operates. Sharon Bailey is veteran outreach coordinator.
“We know we didn’t do a good job for the veterans that came back from Vietnam, so we need to do a better job with this group of people that are coming back,” Bailey says. “We need to be there for them when they get off the airplane and say, hey, brother, sister, we know what you’re going to go through. Let us walk you by the hand and do what we need to do, because if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it.”
Susan Branam is Director of Rockland County Veterans Service Agency.
“When I was in the Army, I was trained to have a battle buddy. And so that buddy was someone that when things happened and things got chaotic, that battle buddy had my back. And I knew that I had someone I could rely on. We could rely on each other and we could get ourselves pointed on the right path,” Branam says. “And the PFC Dwyer program basically is the same concept. Veterans are paired with other veterans; they’re battle buddies, just someone that you can text or call or reach out to if you’re having a hard time finding the right path.”
She calls the program a lifesaver, and says a number of Rockland’s veterans will go into crisis if the program stays out of the state budget. The program was born in Suffolk County as a pilot program in 2012. Joseph Dwyer was an Army soldier who served in Iraq, was featured on the cover of Time magazine rescuing an Iraqi boy and, in 2008, died of an apparent drug overdose. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
“The program started here, but I will tell you that I’m here in Rockland County and I’ll go anywhere in the state to support this program because I will tell you, I know, I have met veterans face-to-face whose lives have been saved by this program,” Bellone says.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 veterans take their lives every day. Bellone says the program helps thousands of veterans annually statewide.
“This peer-to-peer model, we believe, and we think the statistics are there, is the most effective way to help stem the tide of what is a national crisis, and that is, veterans committing suicide,” says Bellone.
Carlucci addresses what will happen if the budget is enacted without funding for the Joseph P. Dwyer program.
“If we don’t get the funding for this program, it’ll be devastating. Like we talked about, 150 veterans were serviced just in the month of February here in Rockland. And we’re one of the smaller counties in the state. We’re talking about thousands of veterans will be left behind,” says Carlucci. “We’ve been making tremendous impact, and those numbers will start to erode. What we’ll do is we’ll be desperate and we’ll look for alternative sources of funding.”
Carlucci says Cuomo has cut funding for the Dwyer program in every budget since 2012/2013, and each time the legislature has been successful in adding the funding.