A small group of Suffolk war veterans will gather this week to help each other cope with post-traumatic stress disorder -- making the county one of the first to test a new peer-to-peer support program.
County officials Monday launched the Pfc. Joseph Dwyer program, named after the Mount Sinai native who died from a drug overdose in 2008, five years after he was immortalized in a widely published photograph showing his rescue of a child during combat in Iraq.
At the urging of State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), New York's Office of Mental Health last spring provided Suffolk and three upstate counties with $200,000 each to provide an alternative to clinical, institutionalized counseling options for veterans with PTSD.
"There's obviously a great deal to learn," said Michael Stoltz, whose mental health nonprofit Clubhouse of Suffolk will contract with the county to help run the program. "We're absolutely excited to be on the ground floor of this."
To start, the county Veterans Services Agency will host three weekly peer groups, each with no more than 10 participants. Program coordinator Steve Prescia, a Navy SEAL wounded in Iraq, said he understands how returning veterans can struggle after losing the camaraderie of their combat units.
"It was a very long process getting back on my feet," said Prescia, 39, of Lindenhurst, who underwent several surgeries on his shattered right leg after being shot in 2004. "I learned a lot from that process."
Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), a Marine Corps veteran, said he saw wounded service members immediately improve their state of mind when placed in a setting with people who understood precisely what they went through. But he cautioned that many veterans with PTSD are reluctant to accept offers for help.
"This is going to be a tremendous success -- as long as you can get them to come," he said.
The county will rely on word-of-mouth, fliers and social media to attract participants. Veterans interested in the program can email firstname.lastname@example.org.