State Sen. Tim Kennedy and Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney appeared Tuesday morning at the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York headquarters in Buffalo, to announce funding to continue a program that, its advocates say, is helping hundreds of veterans who may struggle with adjustment to post-military life. Some say it is actually saving lives.
The PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program, also known as "We Are Dwyer," provides social activities, community service, social gatherings and related events that allow peers to retain a spirit of camaraderie and togetherness, something which many veterans reveal helps them in their return to civilian life.
Christopher Veltri spent five years in the Marines and was exposed to combat. He is among the more than 3,400 veterans who have been served by We Are Dwyer throughout Western New York.
"During that time, the Marine Corps spent a lot of time and money training me to deal with things in combat, training to get myself in the mindset that I would be OK with not making it home," Veltri said. "The one thing they forgot to do was train me on the eventuality that I might actually get home. The problems I ran into when I first got out were immense. It's difficult to explain how hard it is, feeling completely removed from your family."
Family, as veterans see it, include those who become brothers and sisters of the same uniform.
The program is named for an Iraq War veteran who, in 2008, ended his own life after battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, addiction and depression.
"Even in that tremendous sadness, hope always prevails," said Alyssa Vasquez, We Are Dwyer program manager and an Army veteran who went on three tours or duty. "It's in his honor and his legacy that we've been able to heal so many of our veterans. This program has led and will continue to lead to that healing."
Veltri, referring to the commonly used suggestion "22 per day," says without the peer-to-peer interactions available through We Are Dwyer, many local veterans might join Dwyer down a dark path in their attempt to cope with the mental traumas quietly inflicted as the result of combat field experiences.
"One friend of mine has passed away due to combat," he said. "Since I've returned from combat in 2010, I've lost 15 friends to both suicide and overdose as a form of coping. When I say when programs like these are mission-critical to winning the fight at home, it really means they are mission-critical to saving the lives of our veterans in the community. Without programs like this, the number of 22 a day will increase."
A similar funding announcement was announced at Veterans One-Stop Center's office in Lockport last month for the continuation of We Are Dwyer services in Niagara County.