4 New York Counties Set to Receive Funding for Vets Peer Pilot Program

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Under the state’s new budget plan, four New York counties — Suffolk, Saratoga, Jefferson, and Rensselaer — are set to receive $200,000 each, to launch a pilot peer support program to help veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

State Senator Lee Zeldin, a U.S. Army Reserves captain, helped put together a panel to study support initiatives for veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI, and secured funding for the PFC Joseph Dwyer Program.

Dwyer served in Iraq and was pictured in a famous photograph carrying an Iraqi boy that graced the covers of several magazines in 2003. He later suffered from PTSD, and died in June 2008 of an accidental overdose.

“Our brave service men and women may come home, they may look like they’re in one piece, but they return with the mental wounds of war,” he said. And while they reintegrate, Zeldin said, many also feel isolated, which can make the support of fellow service men and women all the more important.

“Hopefully this peer-to-peer program will give these veterans who’ve returned to their civilian life a forum to be with other veterans that know what they’re going through, who understand it, so that everyone can help each other through this unfortunate mental wound that follows them home from combat,” he explained.

Zeldin said the plan is to have veterans with similar service experience work together in small groups of eight to ten, to promote discussion and healing. He said he’s hoping to get veterans to participate through word of mouth and social media.

Herb Ruben, a World War II Marine Corps veteran, is the program director with the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City and the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, which helped advocate for the program and the funding.

He said the peer model is innovative and informal, and that it might encourage vets who are hesitant to seek help with mental health issues from a stranger to get assistance from a fellow service member.

“One doesn’t have to go to an office,” he said. “They may meet with a veteran on a park bench. They may meet with them in a bowling alley. They may meet with them by going to their home, and trying to help them remove some of the blocks that are standing in the way of going for help and being able to get the benefits that they are entitled to.”

He is optimistic that the peer support program will help prevent tragic endings like Dwyer’s.

“Our hope here is that we can rewrite the final chapters of the stories of these brave men and women,” Zeldin said. “Instead of it ending in lost, broken relationships and lost jobs and sometimes lost lives, the final story may have a happier ending, if we’re giving these veterans all the tools that they need to be successful and cope.”