Marcelle Leis, Patchogue resident and Air National Guard veteran, is the newly promoted program director of the Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Project, a program designed by the Association for Mental Health and Wellness and Suffolk County United Veterans to prevent suicide. The program is state funded and is now in 15 counties in New York State.
Dwyer was an Iraqi/Afghan veteran who served as a combat medic; he lived on Long Island and openly struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, until he took his own life in 2008. The program, she explained, was formed in his honor as a response to the alarming rate of veteran suicides. Every day, 22 vets take their life nationally.
Suffolk County is home to the largest veteran population in the state of New York and is the fifth largest in the nation, Leis said. There are 75,000 veterans on average in the county alone.
Leis lived in Patchogue for 16 years, grew up in Nassau County and joined the service in 1989. She entered as an airman basic and climbed the ladder all the way to chief master sergeant, E9. She served in that position for five years before retiring and was deployed for one month in 2001 to Kuwait just after 9/11.
“I was very fortunate to go through all the ranks under good mentorship and leadership,” she said.
She made the decision to serve with the mindset to pay for college, but soon found a love for the Air Force. “I always say the person who entered in 1989 never came home. I was transformed into an airman,” she said.
Soon she met her husband in the Air Force and was married in 1992; they then had two children, a boy and a girl. She said she moved to Patchogue to be closer to her base in Westhampton at that time.
After retiring from 24 years of service with the U.S. Air Force and graduating from St. Joseph’s College with a bachelor’s degree, she served as a peer facilitator at the program’s inception in 2013. In 2015, she graduated again from St. Joe’s, this time with a master’s in human services and joined the team full-time.
Michael Stoltz, CEO of Suffolk County United Veterans Mental Health and Wellness, said Leis has been an invaluable member of the team and has brought much needed leadership and organizational skills.
“We are please to have her join our team,” he said in regards to her new position.
As for the project, he said it has been very successful at reaching invisible wounds of war, as far back as Vietnam veterans to as recent as Afghan and Iraq vets.
“It has been very successful, so much so that it has expanded in New York State and Congressman [Lee] Zeldin is looking to expand it nationally,” he said.
The program, Leis said, originally began to facilitate peer groups for veterans in need, crisis intervention and community-based support. Though they are not certified clinicians, some of the eight staff members have a background in clinical and social work.
Veterans can attend peer groups at various locations in Suffolk County, she said. Once at the session, they can share experiences and learn how to transition back to civilian life. Currently these sessions can be found in areas including Bayshore, Huntington, Yaphank, Patchogue and Amityville. Soon, one is opening in Riverhead and online. Some take place at American Legions and she hopes to expand sessions into public libraries. As a New Year goal, Leis added, the program is looking to install family workshops at libraries for even deeper support.
The unique thing about the program, she explained, is that they do not have to prove that they are veterans.
“If you say you’ve served,” she said, “then you are welcome.”
Also, they don’t report to the VA, Veterans’ Affairs, or disqualify veterans for “bad papers.” The only requirement on behalf of the staff is to report to the state based on demographics, which makes sessions very confidential.
More recently in the program, if an individual needs a mentor but doesn’t want to go to group, they can meet with a peer mentor any day. She said often they will meet with vets to grab a cup of coffee and talk. And if a family member calls concerned for a vet, the program will send staff members to make a home visit in crisis situations.
Another goal is to partner with nonprofit agencies and clinicians to provide vets with direction to get the services they need. Often, she said, the VA is a large system that is hard to navigate.
“Our mission is to reduce the risk and rate of suicide,” she said. “We empower them to get the help they need.”
Monthly, they serve about 25 veterans in groups and about another 50 individually. Their events touch over 200 vets a month. One of the downsides, she said, is that there are more male than female vets in the program. That is something she is looking to change this year by organizing women’s groups.
To contact the program for more information, to get help or to help a friend or family member, contact the office at 853-8345 or message them on Facebook at the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project; if it is an emergency, call 911. Their website, www.dwyerproject.org, she added, will be up and running this February.