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Veterans peer counseling program may face funding cuts

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The Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Program is falling on the short end of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year. Last month, Governor Cuomo outlined his budget and his plans for how he is going to close the projected $6.1 billion budget gap. With this deficit being the largest that the governor has had to deal with since his first fiscal year in office, there are unprecedented adjustments toward where spending would be limited.

One such case is the Dwyer Program, named to honor the memory of an Iraq war veteran from Mount Sinai, N.Y. The program provides veterans with peer-to-peer counseling to help cope with the challenges of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury brought on from their time of service. With meeting locations across Nassau, the program gives local veterans the resources to better acclimate themselves back into civilian life after they are finished serving our country.

The budget that was outlined for the 2021 fiscal year would cut all funding for the program. Advocates for the Joseph P. Dwyer program are in a similar spot this year as they were last year, as this isn’t the first time funding has been fought for the program.

Last April, however, the governor’s final budget allocated $4.8 million for mental health services for vets, including an additional $300,000 for the Dwyer Program.

State Assemblyman Michael Montesano is hoping for a turnaround again. The assemblyman, whose district includes Oyster Bay, Bayville, and parts of East Meadow and Salisbury, drafted a letter that he plans to send to the governor to request the restoration of funding to the Dwyer Program, as stated in a news release from his office on Feb. 13.

Dwyer enlisted in the Army two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His face became widely recognizable through an Army Times photo taken of him cradling an Iraqi boy who had been wounded during a battle in Baghdad.

Dwyer became known as a hero, but his battle didn’t end when he came back to the U.S. Although reunited with his wife and daughter, Dwyer faced PTSD and died by suicide in 2008.

The Dwyer Program was first launched by then-State Senator Lee Zeldin in 2013 and has since spanned 20 New York counties.

There is also hope on the federal level as now-U.S. Congressman Zeldin introduced legislation to expand the program nationally as the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act. The bill received bipartisan sponsorship when Zeldin introduced it last April and it now sits on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Often times overlooked, peer counseling programs provide veterans with the tools and resources to help them live better lives after their service, something that Assemblyman Montesano feels is crucial for veterans.

“These programs are very essential to the mental health of our returning war veterans and their families as they transition back into their communities,” he said.

This year’s budget gap is a harder challenge than year’s past with the increased costs of Medicaid as one of the main reasons. Cutting projected costs of agency operations and taking a step back on aid to localities may not being enough to tackle the projected $6.1-billion-dollar gap. In addition to those cuts, the state has already made an effort to decrease the growing cost of Medicaid, but spending will have to be reeled in elsewhere in order to keep the budget gap from increasing further in future fiscal years.

There is still optimism when it comes to funding for veterans’ programs, specifically the Dwyer Program. With meetings Monday through Thursday free of charge to veterans on Long Island, the program has garnered support throughout the state, and with some work similar to last year, Assemblyman Montesano believes that this program will receive all of their funding they were expecting. “I believe this will be restored to its previous level, and we will do what we can with it, but it shouldn’t be anything less than that.”