Senate trying to get more funding for peer-to-peer veterans aid network

Photo by Warren Zinn, The Army Times
Joseph P. Dwyer carrying an injured Iraqi boy. Senate Republicans are trying to get permanent funding for a program named in Dwyer’s honor to provide more services to veterans across New York.

Veterans across New York are voicing their support for the Joseph P. Dwyer Project and rallying to adopt the peer-to-peer veteran support program as part of the governor’s executive budget.

The Joseph P. Dwyer Project is a peer-to-peer initiative that provides aid to veterans by linking them up with other vets. Veterans across the state continue to advocate for the project due to its success at providing needed aid to those who’ve served in the military.

According to the project’s website, “the Joseph P. Dwyer Project is a Senate funded initiative which provides peer-to-peer, vet-to-vet support for veterans struggling with PTSD and other issues due to combat experience and other military service-related violence.”

Joseph Dwyer was a combat medic who served in Iraq and gained fame for a photo that documenting him cradling a wounded Iraqi boy. Dwyer suffered from PTSD and drug addiction after returning home, and his behavior became increasingly erratic and dangerous. He died from a drug overdose in 2008.

Veterans, legislators and mental health professionals held a press conference in Albany on Feb. 12 to rally support to add the program as a permanent part of the state budget.

One of the prime initiatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is to prevent suicide. Since its inception five years ago none of the veterans utilizing the Dwyer Project committed suicide, and the program is believed to have saved numerous veterans who were contemplating suicide.

Unlike other organizations, including the VA, the Dwyer Project offers its services to anyone who has served in the military, regardless of their discharge status. Typically veterans who are dishonorably discharged, or medically discharged in some cases, are unable to gain access to veterans services. At Dwyer, “If you serve, you earn.”

The program is so successful because, as Kim Humphries of the Nassau Dwyer Project said, “Nobody gets vets like vets.”

For vets, it can be hard to explain the traumas and mental issues caused by their experiences to loved ones, Humphries explained. However, when vets talk with someone who has shared those experiences, it enables them to open up and address their internal struggles.

The Dwyer Project’s new initiative, which is only five months old, puts its coordinators inside government veteran agencies, such as the VA.  This enables the project to reach more veterans who are in need.

The Dwyer Project currently serves 16 counties in New York: Dutchess, Putnam, Nassau, Rensselaer, Rockland, Westchester, Orange, Suffolk, Niagara, Chautauqua, Saratoga, Erie, Onondaga, Jefferson, Monroe and Broome. The project’s supporters, like Senator Thomas Croci, want to expand it to as many counties as possible.

As successful as the project is, it cannot grow without increased funding in the state budget, say its supporters.

Jeffrey McQueen, chief program officer of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County and former chief director of Dwyer in Nassau County, said the marginalization of veterans must be addressed now more than ever.

“It’s easier to deal with smoke than with fire,” McQueen said. “If we don’t take risks and increase the budget now, you kind of pay for it anyway.”

The Dwyer Project is not a part of the governor’s budget. For the past two years the Senate has reallocated funds to provide Dwyer with $3.1 million annually, which amounts to a minimum of $185,000 for each county chapter. Adding the Dwyer project to the state budget would save this reallocation step and provide a permanent source of funding for the project.

Sen. Joe Addabbo, D-Ozone Park, wants to double that figure by adding $6 million to the budget to continue to grow the Dwyer Program into the five boroughs of New York City.

“[The project] has a proven track record,” Addabbo said. “When it comes to veterans there is no place for politics.”

With only weeks left to get more funds added to the budget, the campaign will continue to push the issue in Albany.