Brothers in arms helping troubled vets

Saturday, June 22, 2013
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At the state Military Museum in the old armory in Saratoga Springs, there’s a room behind all the war exhibits big enough to hold a ceremony or maybe show a movie.

Saratoga County used it last week to publicly launch a new program to help troubled military veterans deal with their private demons.

Local politicians and even a former U.S. undersecretary of veterans affairs praised the Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Peer-to-Peer Counseling Program, while the aroma of chicken tenders and cheeses for afterward wafted from the back of the room.

The food made the event kind of festive, but there were people who came to the ceremony seeking help, and others who wanted to offer it.

Those who think they can help include guys whose most formative experiences happened decades ago in Vietnam, and others whose fathers were distant and unstable in the way of men who fought in the “good” war, back when nobody talked of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The folks who have been through their own rough readjustments think maybe they can help the men and women coming home now from Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them troubled by PTSD and considered “tough nuts to crack.”

Dwyer, for whom the state-funded program is named, was a Long Island native who committed suicide in 2008 after returning from Iraq, where he was a medic, once captured in a famous photo running with an injured infant.

Another tragedy: former 10th Mountain Division soldier Elijah Willette of Saratoga Springs, who killed himself in February at the age of 25. His mother broke down repeatedly trying to talk about it. We news hounds were asked not to interview her. It was a request we respected, so raw was her pain.

Behind the deaths of Dwyer and Willette, there’s a startling statistic: 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the United States, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, far more than are dying in combat. Depression, substance abuse, emotional volatility and homelessness are all underlying issues.

Many taking their own lives are older veterans of earlier wars, but others served in our most recent conflicts. Veterans who are in emotional trouble aren’t quick to admit it, or to use the conventional mental health system.

That’s where peer counseling comes in. It’s sitting down with another veteran who at least understands combat or the military system, who can sympathize and maybe point a troubled soul in a better direction.

Andrew Davis, one of the trained counselors and a former director of the Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency, was once troubled. He served five years, did combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and after discharge found himself at the University of Minnesota, feeling adrift in an unstructured environment. He wasn’t misbehaving dramatically — but after his fifth speeding ticket, a cop who had served in Vietnam thought it would be a good idea to take the kid out for a cup of coffee. It made a difference. As one veteran said, sometimes you just want to hear someone say that it’s going to get better.

Saratoga and Rensselaer are two of the four counties across the state that each received $200,000 in state money to pilot peer-to-peer programs. They got $185,000 more in this year’s state budget to keep them going.

The two local counties were selected thanks to the advocacy of Roy J. McDonald, then a state

senator, who never forgot some of his formative experiences happened in forward positions in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Amy Hughes, the program coordinator, said referrals come through family members and other sources. She can be reached at the county Veterans Services office in Ballston Spa.

County Director of Veterans Services Felipe Moon said the peer-to-peer program is one of several initiatives under way to help vulnerable veterans. His office is also exploring the idea of a veterans court, a justice program based on the idea that not everyone who gets in trouble with the law is a criminal.

 

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