Ortt, Hawley didn’t like state budget but grateful for increase in veterans’ program

Photos by Tom Rivers: State Sen. Robert Ortt, center, speaks today outside the Orleans County Veterans Service Agency office on Route 31. He is joined by Orleans County Chief Administrative Officer Jack Welch, Assemblyman Steve Hawley, Orleans County Legislature Chairwoman Lynne Johnson, Orleans County Veterans’ Services Office Director Nancy Traxler.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 14 April 2021 at 2:55 pm

ALBION – State Sen. Rob Ortt and Assemblyman Steve Hawley both were resoundingly opposed to the state’s new $212 billion budget.

But both acknowledged there are some good parts of the spending plan, included $4.5 million for the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer to Peer Program.

That program was zeroed out in the governor’s initial budget proposal. It was at $3.5 million. Ortt and Hawley both said the Republican conference pressed hard for the program to get an increase.

Assemblyman Steve Hawley also spoke during the news conference today.

“I am proud to have fought to restore this vital, life-saving funding into this year’s budget so that veterans may get the mental health assistance they need and deserve,” Ortt said. “It is shameful that Gov. Cuomo opted to cut the funding for this program completely in his Executive Budget, but its inclusion in the final state budget is welcome news.”

Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties will share $185,000 with each county getting an equal third of that amount or $61,667. Niagara and Monroe counties each have also been approved for $185,000.

Orleans will run the program out of the Veterans Service Agency. None of the funds will go towards administering the program with the money going solely to boost social opportunities and peer connections among veterans. In the past the program has paid for fishing outings, baseball and Buffalo Sabres games, YMCA programs, a train ride with the Medina Railroad Museum and other activities.

The Peer to Peer Support Program was established in honor Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer, who is from Suffolk County and later moved to North Carolina. After returning home from Iraq, Dwyer suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. He received care from the VA, but had a hard time integrating into civilian life, eventually taking his own life.

“22 veterans a day take their lives due to the lingering effects of their service at nearly 1.5 times the rate of the general population,” Ortt said. “This funding will help connect those suffering from the invisible scars of war with the assistance they need to survive, and we must continue the fight to ensure this program is a permanent fixture in the budget every year.”

Ortt and Hawley both said they want to see the funding become a permanent part of the state budget, and not be in limbo each year.

“To think that funding for this vital program was ever on the chopping block is incredibly disheartening, and I am grateful to my colleagues in the Legislature for preserving this program as the governor tried to defund it entirely,” Hawley said. “For many veterans, the hardship they face persists even after they return from duty, and we should be doing all we can to help them in their struggles for all they do for us and our nation. As a veteran myself and member of the Assembly Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I can’t say enough how much of an impact programs such as the Dwyer program have on the lives of soldiers returning to civilian life and how disastrous losing such an important program would be.”

Nancy Traxler, director of the Orleans County Veterans’ Service Office, said programs are being planned through the program. She expects those activities to be announced soon as Covid-19 restrictions are being eased.

“Veterans all over New York are being helped by this program, and it would have been a great loss to the veteran community had this funding not been added back into the budget,” Traxler said.

Veterans in Orleans County interested in upcoming activities through the Dwyer program can call Traxler’s office at (585) 589-3219.