Reginald Cain says he’s mostly OK after surviving three combat tours in Vietnam, though he can still be jumpy about some things.
“I still don’t like someone walking up on me from behind, and I don’t like loud noises,” said Cain, 73, of Amityville. “I’m liable to do anything.”
Cain was among about 150 veterans and their families who gathered Saturday for the 4th annual Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project Day of Wellness. The daylong picnic at a Center Moriches camp highlights practices former troops can use to cope with civilian life.
The event featured kayaking, fly-fish tying and other family oriented recreation, plus demonstrations of how to employ peer mentoring, massage therapy, meditation and other nonmedical approaches to help individuals and families cope with anxieties and depression often developed by military veterans.
The state-funded Suffolk County Dwyer program, which was launched in 2012, matches veterans in individual and group settings to talk about what may be bothering them, and share ideas for how to overcome such challenges as chronic irritability, problem drinking, or the urge to withdraw from society. Last year, more than 1,200 veterans sought support through the Suffolk program, according to its annual report.
The program was named in honor of Joseph Dwyer of Mt. Sinai, an army medic whose photograph while cradling a wounded boy in the early days of the 2003 invasion was one of the most iconic images of the Iraq War. Dwyer struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, and died of a drug overdose in 2008.
Dwyer program organizers said addressing the psychological needs of veterans was especially important after 15 years of war in southwest Asia.
As many as one in five people who have returned from combat in Afghanistan or Iraq have shown clinical signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or severe depression, according to the Rand Corporation, a research organization that studies military issues. High rates of suicides among veterans — those from the Vietnam era and earlier are particularly susceptible — has raised alarm among veteran advocates.
“We wondered what was going on,” said Tom Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency, which sponsors the Dwyer program. “We were losing guys at an incredible rate.”
Fred Loucka, 74, a Vietnam era veteran who experienced a series of bad marriages and eventually fell into homelessness after leaving the Air Force in 1966, said the Dwyer program had helped him address anxiety and depression he linked to near-death experiences in and around military aircraft.
“The older guys who have been through this stuff can help the younger ones with how to get family counseling, how to get food, or whether it’s alcoholism,” Loucka said. “There is always someone at the Dwyer group who can lead us where we need to go.”