Tom Leonard /The Daily Telegraph – 2008-07-10 21:54:31
NEW YORK (July 9, 2008) — A US army medic who became a symbol of American heroism and integrity in the Iraq war has died of an apparent drugs overdose. The premature death of Joseph Dwyer at the age of 31 has highlighted the neglect many American veterans believe they face once they return home.
He was made famous by a photograph, taken in March 2003 during the first week of the war, in which he is seen running to a makeshift hospital.
In his arms, the soldier was cradling an injured Iraqi boy who he had rescued from crossfire.
The arresting image, held up by the war’s supporters as the human face of the invasion, was reproduced around the world and Specialist Dwyer was hailed as a hero.
However, he was always uncomfortable with the media attention, attempting to deflect its focus on to his entire unit. He had done no more than any of the other soldiers in his unit, he told reporters.
It emerged that Mr Dwyer’s post-war civilian life was also no different to that of many fellow veterans. For years, he struggled against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug abuse, unemployment and marital breakdown.
On June 28, Mr Dwyer, 31, called a taxi to take him to a hospital near his home in Pinehurst, North Carolina, after earlier taking presciption pills and inhaling fumes from a computer cleaner aerosol.
When the driver arrived, Mr Dwyer said he was too weak to open the door. Police had to kick it down and found he had collapsed. Within minutes, he had died.
Police in several states had been dealing with Mr Dwyer for several years as he suffered from violent delusions that he was being hunted by Iraqi soldiers.
He was in and out of psychiatric care, once being committed after he started firing at imagined attackers inside his home, leading to a three-hour police siege. He had also crashed his car several times after swerving to avoid imagined roadside bombs.
Mr Dwyer’s family said he had also been struggling with depression and sleeplessness, symptoms associated with PTSD. He would spend nights hiding in a wardrobe clutching a knife, and started inhaling from aerosols to help him sleep.
His mother said the army could have done more to help him. “He loved the picture, don’t get me wrong. He just couldn’t get over the war,” said Maureen Dwyer. “He just wasn’t Joseph. Joseph never came home. Talking to him, he knew he was going to die.”
His wife, Matina, said: “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 said she hoped that her husband’s death would bring more attention to PTSD issues.
A recent report by the RAND corporation, a US think tank, criticised as inadequate the treatment of the one in five American troops who exhibit symptoms of PTSD or depression following service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mr Dwyer, a New Yorker who enlisted after the September 11 terrorist attacks, got married just before leaving for Iraq. His unit, a squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, was in the vanguard of the initial US thrust and involved in fighting almost every day for the first three weeks.
On the day before his famous photograph was taken, Mr Dwyer’s Humvee vehicle had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade – an event which his family said sparked his depression. After seeing the village of Al Faysaliyah caught in the fighting, he grabbed a four-year-old boy from his father and rushed him to safety.
When he returned home after three months, he was exhibiting the symptoms associated with PTSD. In restaurants, he would always sit with his back to the wall and he avoided crowds. At home, he would pile his furniture up against the walls, too.
As his marriage fell apart, he stayed away from friends, abused inhalants and got into frequent trouble with the police. In 2005, he and his family gave an interview to try to help other veterans struggling with PTSD.
“I know I don’t need to be carrying a weapon. And I’m scared of going home without having one, even though I know probably nobody’s going to attack me,” he said.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.