GREENPORT—A billboard in Chatham advertises the Joseph P. Dwyer Day Room of the Veteran’s Center in Greenport. It features a photograph of an American soldier in battle gear carrying an injured child. The picture is by photojournalist Warren Zinn, who was working for the Army Times and embedded with the 7th Cavalry in 2003 as the United States Army approached Baghdad, Iraq. After a night of ambushes and firefights PFC Dwyer was photographed as he evacuated the child from a contested village.
The photo became famous, featured on magazine covers all over the world. PFC Dwyer became a celebrity. But after he left the military he suffered from severe traumatic stress and five years later he died of a drug overdose.
The Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, launched in 2012 in Suffolk County, has is now in Columbia County. Money provided by the state Senate through the Dwyer Project has helped to fund the new facility and its programs.
Gary Flaherty of Canaan, saw plenty of the kinds of experiences that cause post-traumatic stress disorder during his military service in Vietnam in the late 1960s. One of his jobs was as a “tunnel rat,” a guy who could go into the tunnel networks made by the North Vietnamese army to clear and destroy them.
Mr. Flaherty’s work with veterans of all generations has been a healing process for him as well as the veterans he serves. He became the county director of Veterans Services in Columbia County 10 years ago. His single-room office was in the County Building at 401 State Street, Hudson. But in August 2018, the agency moved to 389 Fairview Avenue where, in addition to Mr. Flaherty’s office, there is a reception area and a private interview room equipped with Zoom software for online appointments with doctors at the VA Hospital. These rooms, which Mr. Flaherty calls the Operations Center, are directly accessible from the building’s rear parking lot. On the floor below are the Joseph P. Dwyer Day Room and adjacent conference room. The Day Room, accessible from the building’s front parking lot, had its grand opening in August 2020. “I love the job,” says Mr. Flaherty. “It keeps me going.
“Every Sunday morning when I come in I call all my veterans just to check in with them.” His count of calls for the year 2020 was 1,039.
“I’m part time,” he says.
A big part of his job is to facilitate compensation and pension exams for veterans. Known as comp-and-pens, they can be traumatic for veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) who must go through physical and—in the case of PTSD—psychological exams to determine the percentage of their disability.
“I have 39 cases now,” he says. He prepares and faxes paperwork to Wisconsin. Then the vet’s exam goes back to the regional office for rating and to assign percentages of disability.
Other responsibilities Mr. Flaherty has taken on include securing the bronze veterans markers for graves, presenting the flag to families at funerals, speaking at Memorial Day ceremonies and fielding phone calls, answering questions. He also helps with spousal benefits.
“If a veteran goes to court, I will go with them,” he says.
‘Every Sunday morning when I come in I call all my veterans just to check in with them.’
Gary Flaherty, director
County Veterans Services
Mr. Flaherty has seven veterans who are victims of military sexual trauma (MST), five women and two men. “When people tell me they were traumatized, it makes me sick,” he says. “More people are willing to talk about it now.”
He says the VA hospital in Albany has a terrific program for MST. “I am convinced we have the best VA Hospital in the country.”
Mr. Flaherty also takes pride in his advocacy for veterans housing.
“Columbia County has no homeless vets. When I first came down here I went around to find homeless vets. If we have a veteran even thinking about homelessness, I get them on the phone.”
On February 11, Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19th) paid a visit to the Veterans Center. On hand to receive him were Mr. Flaherty, Ken Burger and Steve Pechacek who are veteran mentors in The Joseph Dwyer Program, Ryan Tiano, an Air Force reservist and a board member, and Carol Burger who, along with JoAnn Concra, works part-time as a clerk.
They took a tour of the facility, showing the congressman the Day Room, with its recreation area. Mr. Flaherty showed Rep. Delgado his prized photograph of General Omar Bradley hanging on the wall, and among the service banners in the window, the new Space Force flag. He also showed Rep. Delgado the computer work station. Everything in the Day Room is either donated or provided at cost.
They talked about the issues foremost on Mr. Flaherty’s mind. Mr. Flaherty points out that battling isolation is so important for preventing suicide. On the topics of compensation and pension exams, he says, “Categories are irrelevant, a veteran is a veteran and classifications don’t really do justice to their sacrifice— and the sacrifice of the families.”
“We have to be more aware on the federal level of what is actually working,” says the congressman. “There is a lot we can do, and we have to make sure we get it right.”
Mr. Delgado referenced his “Direct Support for Communities Act,” a bipartisan bill written with New York Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-1st) to fill some of the holes left by the 2020 CARES Act, which provides funding for communities with over 500,000 residents. The bill was introduced in January 2021.