Zeldin calls for peer-to-peer counseling program to help struggling veterans nationwide
Representative Lee Zeldin joined local and state elected officials and veterans’ advocates today in front of the statue of Private First Class Joseph P. Dwyer in Rocky Point to call for the passage of a bipartisan bill aimed at nationalizing the New York State veteran. program bearing the name of the deceased veteran.
Dwyer, 31, was an Iraq War veteran from Mount Sinai who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and died in 2008 of an overdose from inhaling an aerosol of computer cleaner. As a New York State Senator in 2012, Zeldin sponsored a pilot of the Dwyer Program, a peer-to-peer support program for veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The program, piloted in Suffolk County, has since expanded across New York State and has a budget of $7.7 million this year.
“As I travel to Suffolk County, over the years, countless veterans have told me that because of the Dwyer program, they are alive, they have jobs, they have families,” Zeldin said. . “They credit the support they got from the Dwyer program with their ability to cope with the mental wounds of war.”
Zeldin introduced a bill in March to fund $25 million in grants for three years through the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement the Dwyer program across the country.
“It was the brainchild of the congressman when he sat where I sit now as a senator,” State Senator Anthony Palumbo said today. “And it became clear that the program has just been a huge success. Clearly this is something we should be doing across the country.
Zeldin said leaders of veterans’ organizations use the Dwyer program as a model for an ideal peer-to-peer mental health program during congressional hearings. He said 14 veterans organizations have endorsed the program for nationwide adoption.
“Our main goal is to keep this program strong and healthy and to support the congressman in his efforts to go national,” said Commander Joe Cognitore of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point.
Ann Morrison-Pacella, Long Island regional director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the organization supports the nationalization of the Dwyer program. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States and veterans have an adjusted suicide rate 52.3% higher than the non-veteran U.S. adult population, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She said the program “will help ensure that veterans are not left behind and that vital services are available across America.”
Zeldin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, was attacked by Iraq War veteran David Jakubonis, 43, outside a VFW post in Monroe County during a July 21 campaign stop. His congressional office issued a media advisory framing today’s press event in response to the attack, but Zeldin did not discuss the incident or mention the attacker until a another speaker, Brookhaven Councilor Jane Bonner, urged him to do so.
Zeldin said the Monroe County Veterans Services Agency expressed interest in contacting Jakubonis after the incident.
“A veteran in need doesn’t know how many resources were available in their town,” Zeldin said. “They tried to get in touch with the veterans so that they could help this veteran in need. The mental wounds of war do not stop at any geographical border.
According to court documents, Jakubonis was intoxicated on the day of the attack and told a law enforcement officer he did not know who Zeldin was. He said he thought the congressman was making derogatory comments about veterans when he walked up to the stage where Zeldin was speaking and, wearing spiked plastic knuckles, grabbed Zeldin by the arm, raised his hand with the gun and said to Zeldin, “You’re done.”
Jakubonis has struggled since his release from the army. His wife died, leaving him with two young children. He drank heavily and, while recovering, had an alcoholic relapse on the day of the attack, according to his lawyers.
Zeldin said today that the residents and veteran community of Monroe County want to provide Jakubonis with the help he needs so he can deal with whatever he struggles with.
“And we have to make sure we get him that help. The Dwyer program exists for exactly this particular moment,” Zeldin said.
In the two weeks since the incident, Zeldin and his campaign have repeatedly cited the attack as an example of rising crimes in New York City that Zeldin blames on criminal justice reforms passed by Democrats in 2019. He used it to hammer the incumbent Democratic governor. Kathy Hochul for being “soft on crime”
Zeldin also used Jakubonis’ release on his own recognition by a city judge following his July 22 arraignment as an example of what he calls the dangerous consequences of “cashless bail.”
Following his indictment for attempted assault by the state, which under New York law is not “eligible for bail” – a judge does not have the discretion to to Require Bail for an Attempt Under the 2019 Reforms – Jakubonis was arrested by the FBI on a federal charge of assaulting a congressman. He is currently in federal custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for August 24. At that time, a federal judge will decide whether to set bail or keep the man in custody pending trial.
Zeldin today denied focusing on cashless bail excluding veterans’ mental health issues when discussing the attack during his campaign for the past two weeks.
“While I don’t have all the answers – none of us here have all the answers – we all know enough to call Mr. Jakubonis to interact with the County Veterans Services Agency. Monroe,” Zeldin said. “that he’s having a conversation with them – that he’s having a confidential conversation with them – letting them know more about what he’s been through, what he’s going through and see if there’s anything which can be provided within Monroe County help.”
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