Service men and women, along with their allies in the state Legislature, are celebrating the restoration of $4.8 million for mental health services for vets in the final budget, which was adopted on April 1.
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz and Assemblyman Michael Reilly, had been vocal about restoring the cuts to programs such as the Joseph P. Dwyer Program, a peer-to-peer counseling program that assists vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Malliotakis held a press conference in Brooklyn last month along with Assemblyman Ortiz, the New York City Veterans Alliance and some members of the American legion. Earlier, she held a rally at Staten Island’s American Legion Gold Star Post #1365 with her neighboring representative Assemblyman Michael Reilly.
“While I ultimately voted against the majority of the state budget, I could not have been more proud to support legislation which included funding for these programs,” Malliotakis said. “There is no better silver lining to this year’s budget than having comfort in the fact that New York State is providing for the men and women who sacrifice the most for our citizens. I will continue to fight for them always.”
The Executive Budget had cut $3.7 million to the Joseph P. Dwyer Program, a peer-to-peer counseling program for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. The governor’s budget also cut $1.1 million for the Veterans Benefit Advising Program, which assists New York State Veterans, service members and their families to ensure they receive the benefits they earned in service.
In final negotiations, the cuts were restored and the budget also includes $300,000 in additional funding for a peer-to-peer counseling pilot program in New York City.
“Peer to peer veterans’ programs are critical to addressing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I support these model programs so that veterans can transition into civilian life, find gainful employment, and enjoy life at home with loved ones,” Ortiz said. “New York State should support this program. We owe so much to our veterans for their service.”
The program was named after Joseph P. Dwyer, a Suffolk County resident who joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks and was deployed to Iraq.
Dwyer got national attention for a photograph showing him cradling a wounded Iraqi boy while his unit was engaged in battle in Baghdad. The iconic photograph, taken by Army Times photographer Warren Zinn, ran front page in newspapers and on television news across the country.
While the photo turned Dwyer into an instant “hero,” his life changed dramatically when he returned home. Dwyer struggled with PTSD and he took his own life in 2008, leaving behind a wife and young daughter.
The program named in his honor consists of support in mental health, learning opportunities, along with support to veterans and their families.
The Dwyer Project was initially launched in the counties of Suffolk, Jefferson, Saratoga and Rensselaer at the initiative of then-New York state Senator, now U.S. Congressman, Lee Zeldin. The program has since expanded into eleven other New York counties. Zeldin introduced national legislation that would provide funds to state and local governments to conduct peer-to-peer programs across the country.
“PTSD is a big issue in this career, and we need expanded funding for research in PTSD treatments,” said Gary Shacher, the Commander of the American Legion Department of New York.
In mid-March, members of the American Legion, New York Department, took to the Capitol to advocate for funding veteran mental health programs, including the the Joseph P. Dwyer program.
The group is also looking for support from the state and the federal government to help identify comrades lost on the U.S.S. Turner that exploded outside of New York Harbor in 1944 following a series of internal explosions.
A total of 136 crewmen were killed. The remains of some crewmen are thought to be interred in four graves in Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale marked “Unkown U.S. Sailor” with the date Jan. 3, 1944.
Upon being identified, the Legion would like the remains to be given the respect and burial they deserve, and that their families be given the opportunity to grieve and lay their loved ones to rest.
Members of the American Legion also met with lawmakers last month to urge the Legislature to approve other forms of treatment for veterans, such as animal therapy, hyberbaric oxygen treatment, and medical marijuana, all of which have shown promising results.
“This budget may not have been ideal for most New Yorkers, but this is surely a win for my fellow veterans,” said Assemblyman Reilly.