Serving the People Who Serve 

[from left] Nicole Embry, Chief, Montrose VA Center for Development & Civic Engagement (CDCE); Deborah Loughran, CDCE Program Support Assistant; Alan Rios, CDCE Program Support Assistant; Anne Morrison, VA Volunteer [credit] Photo provided
Members of the armed forces most likely to experience difficulty readjusting to civilian life are long-term service members accustomed to years of being told what to do, along with those who experienced combat and other trauma, said Gabriel DiCola, director of the Vet2Vet peer-to-peer counseling program at Westchester Family Services.  

For a growing number of veterans struggling in one way or another, just talking or socializing with a peer mentor, preferably from the same branch of service, can be helpful. They also go on hikes, participate in bowling nights and take in sporting events at West Point. 

These types of one-on-one counseling and recreational programs are finally recovering from the disruption caused by the Covid epidemic, said Nicole Embry, who heads the Center for Development and Civic Engagement at Montrose VA Medical Center, which treats around 14,000 veterans per year.  

Embry is grateful for the many civilian volunteers who also spread cheer and offer programs to her patients, including individuals, local businesses, Elks Club and Knights of Columbus. 

At Montrose VA, Vet2Vet’s engagement ranges from hosting online cooking and paint-and-sip events to running an in-person program for patients at the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] ward.   

Vet2Vet achieved “a tremendous amount of success with its community outreach hosting different types of events,” said Annette Peters-Ruvolo, the program’s contact monitor for the county’s Department of Community Mental Health. “What always impressed me is that they listen to the people they serve and appeal to their interests.” 

Vet2Vet is funded by the state and operates in all of New York’s 62 counties.  

Whether a county agency or a non-profit partner administers day-to-day programs, each chapter is charged with responding to the local population.  

Sometimes that means helping with basic needs rather than major issues, like groceries or clothing, said DiCola. In Westchester, Vet2Vet clients are often referred to the program by a VA social worker or someone at a local VFW or American Legion chapter. 

“These are folks who might benefit from having someone regularly check in with them, talk with them and find out what they can use to make life situations better,” said DiCola. “We will also connect them with resources and even pay for the rides to their appointments if they don’t have Medicaid or VA-funded transportation.”  

The program relies on paid staff and volunteers. New to the job, DiCola, a former Army officer and native of North Carolina, decided to forego television production and find a new line of work after the recent entertainment industry strikes. 

“A lot of times, veterans’ counseling is associated with suicide prevention, but a big part of that is also providing social interaction, resources and peer mentorship,” he said. “Like with many people, it begins with having a purpose in life, be it a hobby, education, employment or a social activity.”  

Veterans wishing to enroll in VA Health Care, call 1-833-577-JOIN (5646). Community members wanting to volunteer, call 914-737-4400, extension 215135.  

Marc Ferris, a River Journal regular contributor, is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem. 


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About the Author: Marc Ferris