Post-traumatic stress consumes soldier after heroic role in Iraq
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, Ali.
The 2003 photo was hailed as a portrait of the heart behind the U.S. military machine, and “Doc” Dwyer’s concerned face appeared on the pages of newspapers across the United States.
Despite the public affection he received for his act of heroism, Dwyer was consumed by the demons of combat stress. For the medic who cared for his wounded buddies as they pushed toward Baghdad, the battle for his own health proved too much to bear.
Dwyer, 31, died June 28 of an accidental overdose at 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 in trouble with the law even as friends, Department of 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 fumes from an aerosol can, 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. Dwyer would 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.
Dwyer served with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment as the unit headed into Baghdad at the beginning of the war.
About 500 Iraqis were killed during those days, and Dwyer watched as Ali’s family near the village of al Faysaliyah was caught in a crossfire. He grabbed the 4-year-old from his father and sprinted with him to safety. The photographer captured the moment. The image went across the United States, 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 the Military Times. “I wasn’t standing out more than anyone else.”
Dwyer said he was just one of many who wanted to help after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He had grown up in New York, and after the World Trade Center towers came crashing down, he went to see a recruiter.
Just before he left for Iraq, he got married.
When he returned after three months in Iraq, he developed the classic symptoms of the stress disorder. 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.
The 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.”
More on PTSD
Click here for local look at post-traumatic stress disorder