A Suffolk congressman is proposing federal legislation that would fund a three-year, $25 million nationwide veterans peer support program modeled on one he helped establish in New York State.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) says the program in New York, known as the Pfc. Joseph Dwyer Veterans Peer-to-Peer Program, has been vital in helping struggling veterans grapple with the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life.
The bill, H.R. 4513, would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to support similar veterans-mentoring programs at the state and local level with federal grants. The bill was introduced Tuesday.
The Dwyer program offers anonymous counseling to veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual trauma or other consequences of their military background, including psychological stress, social isolation or problems stemming from less than full honorable discharges.
Supporters say the program is particularly effective because its meetings are small and community based. They say the promise of strict anonymity allows veterans long accustomed to holding problems inside for fear of being judged, to open up.
Run by veterans, the program was named after an Army private born in Manhasset who struggled with drug abuse after serving in Iraq and died alone in 2008.
Started in 2012 as a state-funded pilot project in Suffolk and three other New York counties, the Dwyer program was considered so successful that Albany expanded it to seven other counties, including Nassau, in 2013. During its first year in Suffolk — which has the state’s highest concentration of veterans — the Dwyer program provided peer counseling for 450 veterans during some 148 sessions, according to Zeldin’s office.
Zeldin says the need to assist individuals who return from military service battling post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or emotional issues following military sexual justify spending to replicate the Dwyer program nationwide.
“It’s so important for our veterans to know there are individuals and groups — not only in Suffolk but all across America — who want to lend a helping hand to get veterans through those tough times,” Zeldin said.
Peer support has been increasingly acknowledged as an effective method of engaging veterans who otherwise might not acknowledge that they are struggling. In 2008, the VA released its “Handbook on Uniform Mental Health Services in VA Medical Centers and Clinics,” which mandated that “all veterans with serious mental illnesses must have access to Peer Support.”
But supporters of the legislation say community-based programs like the Dwyer project are especially useful because they can reach veterans who are unwilling or ineligible to participate in VA organized peer groups. For example, the VA health system may refuse care to veterans with less than a general discharge. And many veterans live too far away from a VA health facility to participate in peer sessions, such as those on eastern Long Island or in regions of the United States with few VA facilities.
Individuals who have been involved in the Dwyer program say it works.
“It is a very cost effective way of providing care,” said John Javis, a former Reserve Army lieutenant who until last year helped administer the Dwyer program in Nassau, and now administers state Medicaid funding with a local mental health organization.
Steve Dreyer, 68, is a Vietnam veteran living in Bohemia who began organizing peer-to-peer sessions for Suffolk’s Dwyer program two years ago. He got involved after his son, an Iraq War veteran, pointed out that Dreyer mostly kept his Vietnam experience bottled-up inside.
“The biggest hurdle is getting the vets who need help to realize that they need help as opposed to try to tough it out,” Dreyer said. “They try to tough it out on their own, or they’re medicated and think that is as good as it’s going to get.”