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Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project

Rocky Point VFW during a 2019 Veterans Day Event. The Rocky Point VFW has donated to the Joseph P. Dwyer project, but that same initiative may be losing funds without federal aid. Photo by Kyle Barr

County officials said the Joseph P. Dwyer program, which provides veterans with peer to peer counseling for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, is under financial pressure amid the economic collapse caused by the pandemic.

Though at the same time, a local congressman who helped start the program has questioned whether the program could truly be defunded, even as local officials are facing a grim financial outlook.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin said there is not much risk of the Dwyer program being defunded any time soon. File photo by Kevin Redding

A loss of the Dwyer program is especially problematic this year, as the need for these services on Long Island has more than doubled in the last six months, according to Marcelle Leis, program director of the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) led a group of people focused on veterans affairs in the county, which has the largest population of veterans in the state, to ask for federal disaster relief.

The Dwyer program is “at risk because of tough budgets in the state,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters. It is “critical that the federal government provide disaster aid to state and local governments so we can continue to function and provide critical services during the pandemic.”

Veterans commit about 20 suicides per day, which is a “national shame,” Bellone said. The county executive cited a recent report in Newsday that estimates that veteran suicides are up by 20 percent since the pandemic began.

“All of the challenges people have faced” have been exacerbated by the “unprecedented natural disaster that we are all living through,” Bellone added.

Domestic violence, mental health and addiction issues have all become more prevalent amid the threat to public health and the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19, officials said.

Thomas Ronayne, Director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, said resources for veterans in Suffolk County were “stretched to near the breaking point.”

Ronayne suggested the virus that has changed the world during this challenging year has been no less an enemy than any combatant veterans faced on a battle field, in a jungle or in a desert city.

Veterans have struggled with the isolation created by calls for them to avoid social interactions, when agencies like Ronayne’s would normally encourage them to socialize and interact with the community and their peers.

Indeed, Joe Cognitore, Commander of the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, who received the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge for his service during Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, said he has typically felt relief going out and feels much more pent up by being indoors.

“Staying in and [staring at] the four walls of your home takes a toll on you,” Cognitore said.

Cognitore said the Rocky Point VFW recently donated $2,500 to the Dwyer Program.

Leis said the Dwyer Program receives $185,000 in Suffolk County each year in state funding. Cutting or eliminating that funding would reduce the services veterans can access.

“We do save lives,” Leis said. “We cannot do it alone.”

Ronayne said veterans can reach out to the Agency by calling (631) 853-8387, adding that they are always available to support veterans, but that people who need help immediately should call 911.

Bellone said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) has a “close, working relationship with the president and the White House,” Bellone said. “That’s a critical thing. We need the president to weigh in with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).] We need all parties to come to an agreement on disaster aid.”

Zeldin was a state senator when the Dwyer Program started and said in a phone interview Tuesday that he has continued to provide support.

While Zeldin has spoken with President Donald Trump (R) this Sunday by phone about the need for funding for Suffolk County, he has not heard about any imminent threat to state-sponsored support for a program he helped create.

The Dwyer Program is funded through the end of the first quarter of 2021, Zeldin said, adding he wasn’t aware of anyone inside the state executive or legislative branch who is planning to cut funding for this program.

Zeldin doesn’t anticipate that this particular program will be cut at the state level either.