Brittany Patterson, of Holbrook, crosses the finish line at Rocky...

Brittany Patterson, of Holbrook, crosses the finish line at Rocky Point High School on Sunday during the third annual Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer PTSD Memorial 5k Run. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Close to 90 runners, and about a dozen walkers, set off Sunday into the pine barrens near Rocky Point in honor of Army Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer, a native of nearby Mount Sinai, who served in the Iraq War as a medic and afterward struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We're a proud veteran family," said Katie Bittner, of Miller Place, who ran along with her father, a Vietnam War vet, and her 8-year-old son. "Awareness of mental illness is really huge,” and the event was a great way to bring that awareness, she added.

Dwyer, who grew up in Mount Sinai, was a medic in the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment in 2003 when he became briefly famous after an Army Times photographer took a picture of him carrying an injured Iraqi boy out of danger.

Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, 26, of Mount Sinai, carries a young...

Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, 26, of Mount Sinai, carries a young Iraqi boy who was injured during a battle between the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment and Iraqi forces on March 25, 2003, near the village of Al Faysaliyah, Iraq. Credit: Army Times via AP/Warren Zinn

After his service overseas, Dwyer suffered from hallucinations and spent time in and out of Veterans Affairs hospitals. He died of an overdose of inhaled compressed air at age 31 in 2008 in North Carolina, according to a National Public Radio story.

“We weren’t aware of the struggles that he had,” said Christine Dwyer, Joe’s sister, who came to watch the race. “When my brother came back, there weren’t peer programs, and I sometimes wonder if those were available to him, what would have happened.”

Sunday’s 5k raised funds for the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project. In the past two years, the race netted "a couple thousand” dollars for the organization each time, according to organizers, though they emphasized that the goal was raising awareness as much as raising money.

The peer counseling program, which was established in 2013, aims to get around the barriers to speaking openly about mental health struggles. Trained facilitators run the support groups, and participants can remain anonymous.

“A lot of veterans have a lot of pride and that pride gets in their way sometimes,” said Joseph Cognitore, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point, which organized the race.

Vets may also fear that having a PTSD diagnosis on their records can hinder job prospects. “But by holding it in, that’s worse for them,” Cognitore said.

“There’s a stigma in saying they need help,” said Nancy Tappin, program coordinator for the Dwyer project. But “if they’re in a room of other veterans, then they’ll feel more comfortable talking to someone who they feel can understand their perspective. Having that peer who they can feel safe with totally makes a difference for them.”

About 22 veterans die every day by suicide in the United States, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs; women, Native Americans and homeless veterans are disproportionately at risk.

Sunday’s race started at Rocky Point High School and followed a path through the pine barrens, drawing participants from across the Island.

Runners cross the starting line at the third annual Pfc....

Runners cross the starting line at the third annual Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer PTSD Memorial 5k Run at Rocky Point High School on Sunday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

One runner, Amanda Welch, 38, of Miller Place, is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked with clients with PTSD, including a few veterans. “Across the mental health field, you run into limited services,” Welch said. Peer counseling is, she said, “an important resource to have available.”

Suffolk Legis. Chad Lennon (R-Rocky Point), a veteran, ran in the race in camouflage and combat boots. The Dwyer program is “a great way for someone to know I’m not alone with what I feel, the thoughts I may have,” Lennon said, “and then they can work on that.” 

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