WATERTOWN, N.Y. — A new peer support center that aims to help soldiers and veterans who are facing post-traumatic stress disorder by pairing them with other veterans held its grand opening Friday.
“All it takes is one little spark ... a uniform tab, a picture,” said Kirsten L. Feldmann, a military, veteran and family advocate for the Mental Health Association in Jefferson County. “They just talk for hours, things they wouldn’t open up about to somebody in a white suit.”
The center, in the Marcy Building, 167 Polk St., will house the new Pfc. Joseph Dwyer Peer Support Program for Veterans, which is supported by a $200,000 state grant to Jefferson County Community Services. The agency then selected the Mental Health Association in Jefferson County to run the program.
The new center was made possible by pairing the new funds with a Resiliency and Recovery Initiative grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb.
At the new center, staff could be seen showing off the space, which has multiple lounge areas to support group sessions.
“This is a very informal space,” said Theodore R. Stiles Jr., the association’s executive director.
Mr. Stiles, a veteran who served for five years at Fort Drum, said he saw the center as a place that would direct soldiers to services they need. The grand opening date for the center, which opened earlier in the week, was chosen to coincide with Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
Pfc. Dwyer, a combat medic who rose to fame in 2003 when a photo was released of him carrying an injured Iraqi boy, died in 2008 of an accidental drug overdose after struggling with PTSD.
The center still is recruiting volunteer counselors, but one volunteer in the program will help other veterans after being aided by the association himself.
Merrill A. Peters, an Army veteran whose 11-year career included service in Vietnam, was helped by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Mental Health Association after becoming homeless a few years ago. He said he had faced PTSD and night terrors for decades, as well as injuries related to contact with Agent Orange.
While in the association’s respite housing waiting for permanent low-income housing, he would have coffee daily with Melissa R. Amos, another military, family and veteran advocate. The meetings allowed him to discuss the issues he had with his dreams and memories.
“It was the first time anybody had talked to him about it,” said Ms. Amos, a medic who served in the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve for a combined 16 years. “Nobody addressed his mental health.”
Working together, Ms. Amos helped Mr. Peters seek resources that allowed his disability payments to increase to 80 percent of his salary, and recently to 100 percent. In addition, a recent review of Agent Orange claims by Congress led to a settlement that allowed Mr. Peters to purchase a home in Watertown that he had helped to build decades earlier with his father.
He said his money, along with the house, will go to the Mental Health Association when he dies. Mr. Peters said that in addition to talking to fellow veterans, he will drive them to doctor appointments and on errands.
“Anytime they need to go somewhere, they can call on me,” he said.
In the main walkway, Sgt. 1st Class David J. Geig could be seen at a desk drawing an image of Pfc. Dwyer, re-creating the 2003 photo.
“It speaks volumes about soldiers helping,” Sgt. Geig said of the original image, which he had on a computer screen near his canvas. Sgt. Geig, a member of the 1st Brigade who will deploy early next year, said he had spent 60 hours on the drawing, with about another 15 to go.
As a soldier, Sgt. Geig said, he was happy to see another outlet for veterans to receive help.
“Who better to talk to them than somebody who’s gone through it themselves?” he said.