By Chris Cumella
As the deadline for approval of New York State’s final budget approached on April 1, U.S. Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) joined the state Senate Republican Conference March 24 on a call to action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to restore funding for the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program for veterans.
The Dwyer program was introduced in 2012 by Zeldin, then a state senator and a U.S. Army veteran himself, having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Essential health support was provided to veterans in the state. Zeldin’s home county of Suffolk was among the first to utilize the program.
The program has received bipartisan support from local governments up to the State Capitol. However, funding has been omitted in this year’s Cuomo budget proposal.
“It has been an honor to help lead the effort to take a model here in New York and try to expand it nationally,” Zeldin said. “Every veteran in every corner of America deserves to have that resource available to them.”
According to Zeldin and the Republican Conference, the operation was labeled as “immensely impactful” based on the ability to provide various mental health services designed to help veterans reintegrate back into civilian life.
The program was named in honor of Dwyer, an Army combat medic in the Iraq War who was in an iconic 2003 photo carrying a young Iraqi boy away from danger.
After Dwyer’s return home from service overseas, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He died in 2008.
The Dwyer program stands as a peer-to-peer support model, which provides a safe, confidential and educational platform where all veterans meet in support of each other’s successful transition to post-service life.
The program also seeks to help aid “vet-to-vet relationships” to enhance positive change through shared experiences, a process combined with learning and personal growth.
“As a combat veteran, I fully understand the difference the services provided by the Joseph P. Dwyer program can make in the lives of our veterans who are struggling,” said state Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt, an Army National Guard veteran who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. “The need for these critically important services has never been more important, and they should be made permanent.”
On March 15, the state Senate majority proposed funding of up to $4.5 million for the Dwyer program, which is the same funding level adopted in 2020-21. However, the state Assembly majority has proposed $6.05 million in funding.
Suffolk County alone has been described as having “one of the largest veteran populations in the nation” by state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk).
Two local beneficiaries of the Dwyer program felt the experience was well worthwhile.
“I was struggling with both substance use and abuse and thoughts of self-harm as well as a suicide attempt,” said Smithtown resident Robert Carrazzo in a Zeldin press release. “The Dwyer program and those involved helped me battle all this, and now I am over five years sober, have a family, two degrees and a new career.”
“I was a single mom who was furloughed and attending grad school online, which was taxing on my mental health,” said Northport resident Danielle Koulermos in the same press release. “The Dwyer program grew into a sisterhood of support and guidance geared toward the needs of us as female veterans.”
“Playing games with our veterans’ lives is unacceptable,” Zeldin said. “Not only must full funding for the Dwyer program be restored in this year’s final budget, but this program’s funding must become a permanent component of all future state budgets.”