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Veterans Support Their Peers In Transition Home

The American Legion Post 80 in Binghamton.

The American Legion Post 80 is one of Bert Proper's favorite places. Aside from the plaques, pictures and flags that remind him of military service history, he loves the feel of the building. "You're around people that have been there," he explained.

Proper means been deployed. He served during the Persian Gulf War and had a tough transition back home. "I went up to the VA in Syracuse and committed myself," he said. "It's a little hard to talk about."

He's tried talking to doctors, but had mixed results. "Has it helped? Eh, maybe," he explained. "But all I can do is think in the back of my mind 'what are they judging about me?'."

Proper says they were checking for symptoms of PTSD.

"You go through the story of what you've done and they say 'oh you don't have it,'" he said. "That's not what you need to hear. That's not what you want to hear."

He didn't want someone who didn't serve telling him what was or wasn't wrong. Proper did end up finding what he was looking for, thanks to conversations with other veterans.  They served in World War I, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm. The specific war didn't matter; they could still talk about it.

"That's the biggest thing because we have a camaraderie," he explained. "We have something in common."

A tough transition home is not unusual. Research from the National Institutes of Health in 2007 showed more than 15 percent of Persian Gulf service members had symptoms of PTSD. The rate is about the same for those who fought in Vietnam. A study by the Rand Research Corporation has similar numbers for the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's where the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project comes in. The program operates in more than a dozen New York counties. It sets up vets with other vets in either a group or one-on-one session.

"Whether you're struggling with post-traumatic stress or not, members know they can come without judgment in a confidential, safe space just to talk about day-to-day affairs," said Marcelle Leis, who works with the program in Suffolk County, where it started.

It's also non-clincial. That means there aren't medical professionals trying to diagnose a disorder. Still, there is access to help. The Dwyer Project has the relationships to refer veterans to professionals.

And those referrals work the other way around, too.

"If they're working with someone in a clinical environment, they would maybe tend to refer them to the peer group as an adjunct to assist them when they reintegrate," Leis added.

One of the newest homes of the Dwyer Project is Broome County. The County received $120,ooo in state funding to start it's own program this summer with the hope of creating an atmosphere where veterans help veterans.

"None of us realize what they go through mentally over there. No matter what war it was," explained Broome County Executive Debbie Preston. "They need to talk with someone, so the peer-to-peer is the best."

Proper liked the idea, too. "The one thing thing we'll always have is each other." he said.

The hope is to start the Dwyer Project in Broome County by the end of 2016.