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Bipartisan lawmakers say it's time to fund a veterans support program differently

Jessica Bugbee, Army veteran, during virtual press conference Feb. 12.
Hudson Valley National Center for Veteran Reintegration
Jessica Bugbee, Army veteran, during virtual press conference Feb. 12.

State and local lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for New York to release funding to veterans organizations for a peer support program. Every year, they press for the funding, and every year, the funding is released. This year’s plea comes with a request that the funding become a permanent part of the budget.WAMC's Allison Dunne reports

The Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Program began in Suffolk County as a pilot program in 2012, providing peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans and their families. Democratic Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan is an Army veteran.

“We know before COVID we were already in the midst of an epidemic of veteran suicide, over 22 veterans a day taking their own lives. And for me and for so many here and on this line, that is deeply personal,” Ryan says. “For me, to come home from serving in combat, bringing all the troops under my command home safely, and then to lose one of them to suicide, to lose one of my closest friends to suicide, and so many of us have these stories.”

“I, too, have lost more friends due to post-traumatic stress than I have lost friends who have died overseas in combat,” Zeldin says. “And this program saves lives, it save jobs, it saves families.”

Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin from Suffolk County helped launch the program as a state senator.

“New York is setting the standard and the model for the rest of the country to follow,” says Zeldin. “There are, there are national commanders of veterans service organizations, they come before Congress, they talk about peer support. When they talk about peer support, what they’re talking about as the standard, about the model is what they see from New York. It’s the Dwyer program.”

The call from Zeldin, Ryan and others is to release the 2020 Dwyer funds allocated to veteran organizations last year, but not yet distributed. For the Ulster County-based Hudson Valley National Center for Veteran Reintegration, this funding amounts to $91,500 for 2020 and $185,000 for 2021. Jessica Bugbee from Ulster County is an Army veteran.

“I’m an Army combat veteran. I served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, 15 months as a medic. When I transitioned out of the Army in 2013 I thought I had a plan but, in reality, I did not. I wasn’t transitioned fully out of the Army. I was stuck in all of those experiences of the military.  I was no longer physically in the military but, emotionally and spiritually, I was still swirling around in the military,” Bugbee says. “I was lost and, worse, I didn’t even realize that I was lost. I was subconsciously searching for this community that I once had for a purpose and for my tribe.  So what did I do? I joined the local fire department, which did provide some community and similar mentality of that to the military environment.”

However, it perpetuated negative behaviors and exacerbated her post-traumatic stress. She needed help.

“The Joseph P. Dwyer program saved my life, saved my family’s life,” says Bugbee.

Democratic state senator John Brooks from Long Island chairs the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs.

“Everybody in the legislature understands the importance, and it’s virtually criminal that we have to go through this, this practice each year of begging, if you will, to put the money back,” Brooks says. “How, how is it that we have to go through that process when, everyone, everyone understands just how successful it is, everyone sings praises of the program.”

Brooks says the funding should be released at any moment, but hopes they’re not all back again next year because by then the funding is part of the veterans’ budget. The Dwyer program is now in more than 24 counties across New York. Republican state Sen, Sue Serino of the 41st District has long supported the program.

“And budget challenges or not, to withhold the funds from such a critical initiative is truly shameful,” Serino says. “And as we know, the Dwyer program saves lives and there’s no other program like it.”

Joseph Dwyer served in Iraq in the Army and was featured on the cover of Time magazine rescuing an Iraqi boy. In 2008, he died of an apparent drug overdose.

“And I think all of us on this call, obviously, are fighting like heck to a), get these funds released,” says Republican state Assemblymember of the 97th District Mike Lawler. “The fact that we’re sitting on over a year of funding is really outrageous, but permanently ensuring that this program is fully funded and expanded and that we’re not having these discussions year after year, it’s critical.”

Orange County was among the first in New York to start the Dwyer program. Larry Neumann, a Navy veteran, is program coordinator for the Vet2Vet Program in Orange County.

“To ensure our continued feasibility, we must do the following: 1) Release Dwyer funds immediately; 2) Change the designation of Dwyer funding from discretionary to being part of the permanent state budget; and 3) Consider expanding the program into other, if not, all of the counties within New York state,” Neumann says. “We have a proven track record, seven years running. Our veterans deserve more, not less.”

Democrat Didi Barrett of the 106th District chairs the Assembly Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“It’s a battle every year to get it funded. It is my priority,” Barrett says. “We’ve just done a letter asking for $8 million for Dwyer going forward. We’re asking that it get removed from the Office of Mental Health.”

Putnam County Republican Kevin Byrne of the 94th District signed onto Barrett’s letter.

“I know many of us are tired of going through these, this budget fight each and every year,” Byrne says. “It needs to be a permanent item in the budget. It shouldn’t be tucked away.”

Others on the virtual press conference included the Dutchess, Orange and Rockland County executives, as well as state Sens. Pete Harckham and Michelle Hinchey and Assemblymember Colin Schmitt.

Copyright 2021 WBFO

Allison Dunne