Haunted by Iraq War Demons
US Soldier Who Was Subject of Iconic Photo Dies After Struggling With Mental Illness
MELVILLE, N.Y. - The March 2003 image became one of the most iconic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq: that of a bespectacled American soldier carrying an Iraqi child to safety. The photograph of army Private Joseph Dwyer was used by news outlets around the world.
After being lionized by many as the human face of the U.S. effort to rebuild a troubled Iraq, Dwyer brought the battlefield home with him, often grappling violently with delusions that he was being hunted by Iraqi killers.
His internal terror got so bad that in 2005, the Long Island native shot up his El Paso, Tex., apartment and held police at bay for three hours with a 9-mm handgun, believing Iraqis were trying to get in.
On June 28, police in Pinehurst, N.C., who responded to Dwyer's home, said the 31-year-old collapsed and died after abusing a computer cleaner aerosol. Dwyer had moved to North Carolina after living in Texas.
Dwyer, who joined the army two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and who was assigned to a unit of the 3rd Infantry Division that one officer called "the tip of the tip of the spear" in the first days of the U.S. invasion, had since then battled depression, sleeplessness and other anxieties that military doctors eventually attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The war that made him a hero at 26 haunted him to the last moments of his life.
"He loved the picture, don't get me wrong, but he just couldn't get over the war," his mother, Maureen Dwyer, said by telephone from her home in Sunset Beach, N.C. "He wasn't Joseph any more. Joseph never came home."
Dwyer's parents said they tried to get help for their son, appealing to army and Veterans Affairs officials. Although he was treated off and on in VA facilities, he was never able to shake his anxieties.
An April report by the Rand Corp. said serious gaps in treatment exist for the one in five U.S. soldiers who exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression following service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Half of those who experience the disorder sought help in the past year, the report said, and those who did often got "minimally adequate treatment."
"He went away to in-patient treatments. None of it worked," said his father, Patrick Dennis Dwyer. "And the problem is there are not adequate resources for post-traumatic stress syndrome."
After a PTSD program in Durham, N.C., turned Dwyer away because of a lack of space, Maureen Dwyer said her son received in-patient care for six months at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, beginning last August. After doctors discharged him in March, she said, his anxieties returned with such intensity that Dwyer's wife, Matina, 30, took their daughter Meagan, 2, and moved out five days later.
Maureen Dwyer said her son married a month before his deployment. She said her son began experiencing serious depression soon after his vehicle in Iraq was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2003. She said his problems continued after his deployment ended and he returned to an army facility in Texas.
The El Paso shooting was only one of several incidents there, according to interviews. He had a number of driving accidents when, he later told his family, he swerved to avoid imagined roadside bombs; he once crashed over a curb after imagining that a stopped car contained Iraqi assassins. After a July 2007 motorcycle accident, his parents tried, unsuccessfully, to have him committed to a mental institution.
After his Iraq deployment ended and with increasing urgency, Dwyer's friends urged him to give up his firearms. His parents worried about his practice of pushing furniture against the interior walls of his Texas home, arming himself with knives and sleeping in a closet. He told his family he was suspicious of counselling. He complained that prescribed drugs were ineffective. They say he turned to sniffing Dust-Off computer cleaner to drug himself to sleep. Pinehurst police said abusing that aerosol contributed to his death.
Dwyer's mother said he left the service in March 2006. Unable to hold a job, he lived with his wife and daughter on a Veterans Affairs disability cheque, while going in and out of psychiatric care.
"Talking to him, he knew he was going to die," Maureen Dwyer said.
She agreed to be interviewed despite her grief because she said she hoped to bring attention to the disorder.
"Every second that goes by, there is another soldier just like Joseph," Maureen Dwyer said. "Another family can't go through this. All the politicians talk so great about the soldiers, about patriotism, but mental illness is something they are not putting enough into."