Medic in famous photo dies after PTSD struggle
By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Jul 8, 2008 6:35:20 EDT
During the first week of the war in Iraq, a Military Times photographer captured the arresting image of Army Spc. Joseph Patrick Dwyer as he raced through a battle zone clutching a tiny Iraqi boy named Ali.
The photo was hailed as a portrait of the heart behind the U.S. military machine, and Doc Dwyer’s concerned face graced the pages of newspapers across the country.
But rather than going on to enjoy the public affection for his act of heroism, he was consumed by the demons of combat stress he could not exorcise. For the medic who cared for the wounds of his combat buddies as they pushed toward Baghdad, the battle for his own health proved too much to bear.
On June 28, Dwyer, 31, died of an accidental overdose in his home in Pinehurst, N.C., after years of struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. During that time, his marriage fell apart as he spiraled into substance abuse and depression. He found himself constantly struggling with the law, even as friends, Veterans Affairs personnel and the Army tried to help him.
“Of course he was looked on as a hero here,” said Capt. Floyd Thomas of the Pinehurst Police Department. Still, “we’ve been dealing with him for over a year.”
The day he died, Dwyer apparently took pills and inhaled the fumes of an aerosol can in an act known as “huffing.” Thomas said Dwyer then called a taxi company for a ride to the hospital. When the driver arrived, “they had a conversation through the door [of Dwyer’s home],” Thomas said, but Dwyer could not let the driver in. The driver asked Dwyer if he should call the police. Dwyer said yes. When the police arrived, they asked him if they should break down the door. He again said yes.
“It was down in one kick,” Thomas said. “They loaded him up onto a gurney, and that’s when he went code.”
Dwyer served in Iraq with 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment as the unit headed into Baghdad at the beginning of the war. As they pushed forward for 21 days in March 2003, only four of those days lacked gunfire, he later told Newsday. The day before Warren Zinn snapped his photo for Military Times, Dwyer’s Humvee had been hit by a rocket.
About 500 Iraqis were killed during those days, and Dwyer watched as Ali’s family near the village of al Faysaliyah was caught in the crossfire. he grabbed the 4-year-old boy from his father and sprinted with him to safety. Zinn grabbed the moment on his camera. The image went nationwide and Dwyer found himself hailed as a hero.
He did not see it that way.
“Really, I was just one of a group of guys,” he later told Military Times. “I wasn’t standing out more than anyone else.”
According to Dwyer, he was just one of many who wanted to help after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He’d grown up in New York, and when the towers came crashing down, he went to see a recruiter.
“I knew I had to do something,” he said. Just before he left for Iraq, he got married.
But when he returned from war after three months in Iraq, he developed the classic, treatable symptoms of PTSD. like so many other combat vets, he didn’t seek help. In restaurants, he sat with his back to the wall. He avoided crowds. He stayed away from friends. He abused inhalants, he told Newsday. In 2005, he and his family talked with Newsday to try to help other service members who might need help. He talked with the paper from a psychiatric ward at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was committed after his first run-in with the police.
In October 2005, he thought there were Iraqis outside his window in El Paso, Texas. When he heard a noise, he started shooting. Three hours later, police enticed him to come out and no one was injured.
Dwyer promised to go to counseling, and promised to tell the truth. He seemed excited about his wife’s pregnancy.
But the day he died, he and his wife had not been together for at least a year, Thomas said.
And almost exactly a year ago — June 26, 2007 — Dwyer had again been committed to a psychiatric ward. Thomas said police received a 911 call that Dwyer was “having mental problems relating to PTSD.” “We responded and took him in,” Thomas said. “He’s been in and out.”
Military Times could not reach Dwyer’s family, but his wife, Matina Dwyer, told the Pinehurst Pilot, “He was a very good and caring person. He was just never the same when he came back, because of all the things he saw. He tried to seek treatment, but it didn’t work.”
She told the paper she hoped his death would bring more awareness about PTSD.
In 2003, Dwyer was still hopeful about the future, and about his place in the war.
“I know that people are going to be better for it,” he told Military Times. “The whole world will be. I hope being here is positive, because we’re a caring group of people out here.”