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Nassau to use $250,000 grant to add 2 social workers to help veterans

Iraq War veteran Matthew Schmidt speaks during a

Iraq War veteran Matthew Schmidt speaks during a news conference with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran at Eisenhower Memorial Park in East Meadow on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The problems began gradually after Iraq War veteran Matthew Schmidt left the Army in 2007 after eight years of service and returned home to Massapequa.

First came the isolation and avoidance of social events. He would find himself easily agitated, lashing out at those around him.

Eventually, Schmidt's mental health issues began to affect his relationship with his wife, children and job as a Nassau County police officer.

"I thought I was OK. I thought I was handling it," Schmidt said Thursday at a news conference in Eisenhower Park where county officials announced new support services for veterans in need. "But everyone on the outside world saw it differently, to the point where all of a sudden I realized … that I had to get help."

Schmidt, who retired from the department last year but serves as president of the Nassau Police Veterans Association, would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and find help from the Wounded Warrior Project and the county's Veterans Services Agency.

He said too many vets avoid seeking help because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

"As vets we're trained to take things in, not tell anyone and just keep on going," he said. "But just because we are off the battlefield doesn't mean the battle isn't still going."

With vets taking their own lives at rates often double the general public, Nassau officials announced a new $250,000 grant — using federal COVID-19 relief funds — to equip the VSA with a pair of in-house clinical social workers.

Services will be available Monday to Saturday, with the social workers specializing in assisting veterans with crisis counseling, substance abuse and other mental health issues.

"Our veterans face a tremendous amount of mental health challenges and stressors, including PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, behavioral health problems, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment," said County Executive Laura Curran, who also announced an Oct. 23 veterans picnic at the East Meadow park. "Today we want to let all the brave men and women who stepped up and volunteered to protect our freedoms know that there is help."

A report issued in June by the Costs of War Project at Brown University estimated that 30,177 active duty military personnel and veterans who served since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had died by suicide — more than four times the 7,057 service members killed in military combat during that same period.

And COVID-19 only exacerbated the problems.

A 2020 Wounded Warrior survey of post-9/11 vets and service members found that more than half reported their mental health worsened since the pandemic began while 30% reported having suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks alone.

"Our veterans are in crisis," said Jeffrey McQueen, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, which is developing the new social worker program. "And we need to engage them in a way that addresses those crises."

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