PUTNAM COUNTY, N.Y. -- Armed Forces veterans share a bond that can only be felt by those who pulled on the uniform for a United States military unit. John Bourges of Mahopac realizes that better than any one.
Bourges serves as the Program Coordinator for the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Vet to Vet Program of Putnam County. The group provides peer networking for veterans and their families. There are 16 Vet to Vet programs in New York State. Putnam County’s program started in 2013 and is available for all of the nearly 9,000 veterans in the county.
“We’re not psychiatrists or therapists,’’ Bourges said. “We’re a place to go to where you can speak with other veterans in confidence. Not every veteran needs something to be done. Maybe they’ll never need our services. Some look like they have their act together, but it doesn’t mean issues aren’t there. There are people who fly under the radar and are looking for places to help.”
As the program coordinator, Bourges’ primary role is to create events that bring the region’s veterans together. There are ongoing events that meet once a month. They include an outreach program for Veterans in Patterson, a program for families and spouses in Brewster and a Gulf War program in Kent. Bourges also plans to create a program for women.
The peer-to-peer approach toward supporting veterans developed with the support of Long Island congressman Lee Zeldin in wake of the death of Dwyer, who served in Iraq. The Long Island soldier died after an accidental overdose after years of battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While Dwyer fought PTSD, his family found interaction with military peers provided relief.
“The reason the peer to peer program has expanded in New York state is because it works,’’ Bourges said. “What gets you through the day is walking in the same shoes that you once walked. I don’t know if someone could have saved Dwyer’s life. Because of his family and the program, there is a place where somebody could have called to get him help.”
The programs are free, and there are no long-term commitments. “We offer the opportunity for veterans to come together for each other to listen and benefit from each other’s experience with service-related issues,’’ said Timothy Strobel, the Suffolk County director at the announcement in 2012 that the program would expand to Putnam. “Everything from getting back to civilian life, to returning to school, or civilian jobs, or family life, and also obtaining VA services.”
Bourges traveled a backwards path to his role as the program director. He worked as as New York Police Detective during the 1980s and ‘90s in one of the city’s most violent precincts. He retired 10 days before the 9/11 attacks.
He earned a nursing degree at Westchester Community College after retiring while working odd jobs, including personal protection, as a security guard and even at a funeral home. He also started working in local hospitals as a patient care tech in two hospitals to get a better grip on the medical profession. That led to two jobs, one in the ER at Putnam Hospital and the other at White Plains in the ICU after he graduated. That led to the two certifications (CCRN and CEN). “That’s why the Army was willing to hire me at age 50,’’ he said.
In one deployment that lasted 11 months, Bourges worked in Combat Support Hospitals in Al Asad and Balad. He saw some of the most obscene war casualties.
“Working at the trauma center was life altering,’’ Bourges said. “You have no idea what people can do to each other in a war until you’re there to see it. It was infants, children. There’s no way to explain it.”
He felt compelled to serve his nation and enlisted in the Army Reserves at age 50. Click here to read a profile of Bourges by the New York Daily News in 2008.
Bourges, who now works overnights at Northern Westchester, said veterans have embraced the program because of its inclusiveness. “It’s non-judgemental,’’ he said. “To go to the Veterans Administration, you have to be a veteran. That’s a specific term. That’s not my focus. My focus is that you put on the uniform of the U.S. military. We don’t ask where you served or what your rank was or what you did. You did your part. That’s the important thing.”
Bourges has his own PTSD issues, and recognizes the trauma in other veterans.
“A lot of times it gets very emotional, and you don’t know why,’’ he said. “They’ll have a memory of something that happened at war. A simple act of kindness or violence changed their lives and you’ve gone through life keeping them covered up. Then it hits a nerve and you can tell they’re not in the room any more. Then they come back, and everyone understands it.”See Attachment