Budget cuts could shutter veterans suicide prevention program, lawmakers say

A state-funded program that gives traumatized military veterans a chance to receive one-to-one counseling from other veterans is slated to be eliminated, according to two Brooklyn lawmakers who are fighting to save it.

Assemblymembers Nicole Malliotakis and Felix Ortiz said they are working with veterans’ organizations to prevent the Paul P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Project from having to shut down. The seven-year-old program has prevented veterans from committing suicide, the two lawmakers said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget includes a $3.7 million cut that would virtually wipe out the Dwyer program, according to Malliotakis, who said the governor is also seeking a $1.1 million cut to other mental health and support programs for veterans.

“If anything, we should be increasing the money,” Malliotakis said at a press conference outside the Seventh Avenue gate of the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Bay Ridge on March 22.

The state budget is due to be finalized by April 1. The governor is negotiating with leaders of the State Legislature to determine the final version of the spending package.

Malliotakis, a Republican representing Bay Ridge and Staten Island, and Ortiz, a Democrat whose district includes Sunset Park and parts of Bay Ridge, said they are working together on a bipartisan effort to ensure that the cuts are not made.

Ortiz charged that the governor’s proposed budget is “attacking our veterans instead of helping our veterans.”

It’s frustrating for veterans to see themselves targeted for funding cuts, according to Ortiz, who is a veteran himself. Veterans serve their country in war “and then come back and have another fight,” he said.

The project launched in 2012 as a way for veterans to help other veterans, and is named after Joseph P. Dwyer, an Iraq War veteran from Mount Sinai, New York who died in 2008 and is said to have suffered from PTSD. The program was instituted at the urging of Lee Zeldin, who was a Republican state senator representing Long Island at the time. Zeldin is now a member of Congress.

The program is badly need, said Kristen Rouse, founder and president of the NYC Veterans Alliance. “We have a national crisis of suicides,” she said, adding that 20 veterans take their own lives each day in the U.S. “Veterans in New York State die at twice the rate of civilians,” she said.

In most cases, veterans who kill themselves “have not connected” with programs that could help them, Rouse said. “New York State must restore this funding,” she said.

Elma Sanchez, a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard, did not mince words about the need to fund programs like the Dwyer Project. “Today, I am here begging and pleading,” she said.

Freeman Klopott, spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget, said the governor’s proposed budget does protect vital programs for veterans, and that legislators will have the opportunity to steer funds back to the Dwyer Project.

“The Executive Budget continues funding for all core veterans programs and advances new legislation to protect veterans and their families. Legislative additions from the prior year are not typically continued in the Executive Budget, but the legislature will again have the opportunity to support these programs if they choose. The budget process is ongoing,” Klopott told the Brooklyn Eagle in an email.

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