U.S. lawmakers look to expand veterans program nationwide

U.S. lawmakers look to expand veterans program nationwide

Town of Smithtown officials and St. James veterans give their respects at the rededication of the Vietnam War memorial Nov. 21, 2018. File Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

After a successful statewide lobbying campaign resulting in the restoration of nearly $4 million in funding for a veterans peer support program some have called vital, and given an additional $300,000 for expansion, New York State officials introduced bipartisan legislation April 22 to expand the program nationally. 

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act (H.R.1749), which would expand the peer-to-peer support program nationally for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological and physical traumas. The Dwyer bill was co-sponsored by NYS Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Peter King (R-Seaford) and others. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well.”

— Joe Cognitore

“Expanding nationally the Dwyer program, which is currently operating in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, eventually to all states in the U.S., will ensure that every veteran can have access to a peer-to-peer support group,” Zeldin said in a statement. “With the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] reporting that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide, this national expansion is long overdue.”

This is the second time Zeldin has introduced legislation to expand the program nationally. Two years ago, the congressman proposed a bill that would authorize the VA to support veteran support programs modeled after the Dwyer project with federal grants. 

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, was in Albany with other veterans groups in March urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the Dwyer program, and he said the new bill is a great opportunity to expand these resources to other veterans throughout
the country. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well,” he said.

The main goal of the Dwyer project, which is currently overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

The commander of the VFW Post is glad the funds were restored as part of the executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and in April stopped by the office of state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) to thank him for his support for the Dwyer program. The veteran group presented the senator with a framed picture of the famous photograph of Dwyer helping an ailing Iraqi child. 

“I support anyone who supports veterans, it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat,” Cognitore said. “It is gratifying that we were able to do that, and we have officials that are doing the right thing.”

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008.

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