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Nassau plans peer support program for vets

A confidential peer-to-peer program credited with helping Suffolk County's military veterans grapple with war-related emotional trauma will be duplicated in Nassau beginning this fall.

The program will help veterans having difficulty transitioning back into civilian life by creating small groups where they can talk among fellow veterans who understand what they're going through, said John Javis, projects director of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County.

The groups will bring together five to 10 veterans at a time led by "peer facilitators" -- fellow veterans trained to spot issues and suggest approaches.

"It's not designed to replace traditional mental health treatment, but it's nice to have the support of someone who is going through the same thing you're going through, whether it's anger, depression or having a hard time finding a job," Javis said.

The program will begin with about eight groups scattered across Nassau, he said, with male and female facilitators reflecting a range of ages and ethnicities.

Nassau's Mental Health Association and the county Veterans Department will jointly run the program.

Javis said Moe Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran whose Vet to Vet USA organization has inspired peer-to-peer veterans groups nationwide, will provide training. Participants will not be asked to share personal information, and veterans with less than an honorable discharge will not be turned away.

Last year, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an Iraq War veteran, helped persuade Albany to provide $180,000 in grants to begin peer-to-peer programs in Suffolk and three other New York counties -- Jefferson, Rensselaer and Saratoga. Earlier this year, Albany expanded the grants to seven other counties, including Nassau.

The Suffolk program, the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, was named after an Army medic from Mount Sinai who gained hero status in Iraq, but who died of a drug overdose after struggling in civilian life. The program posts meeting times and some contact numbers on its Facebook page.

In Suffolk, seven peer groups are in operation, and attract 40 to 45 participants each week, according to Mike Stoltz, director of Suffolk County United Veterans, which runs the program there.

Suffolk and Nassau are home to one of the largest concentrations of veterans in New York State, including about 5,000 Long Islanders who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A 2011 study in New York State indicated that as many as one in three Iraq or Afghanistan veterans were suffering from war-related depression, anxiety, brain injury or other mental issues. In the last three months of 2012, nine Long Island veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan died from suicide or drug overdose, according to Nassau Executive Edward Mangano's office.

Stoltz said the fear and carnage soldiers live through is so alien to civilian life that veterans often feel they cannot share their anxieties with nonveterans.

"These guys make a split-decision in war," Stoltz said. "And then have to live with it forever."

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