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But, When They Come Home …

July 20, 2008

This photo was taken on March 25, 2003.

Soldier in famous photo never defeated ‘demons’

They found Dwyer lying on his back, his clothes soiled with urine and feces. Scattered on the floor around him were dozens of spent cans of Dust-Off, a refrigerant-based aerosol normally used to clean electrical equipment.

Dwyer told police Lt. Mike Wilson he’d been “huffing” the aerosol.

“Help me, please!” the former Army medic begged Wilson. “I’m dying. Help me. I can’t breathe.”

Unable to stand or even sit up, Dwyer was hoisted onto a stretcher. As paramedics prepared to load him into an ambulance, an officer noticed Dwyer’s eyes had glassed over and were fixed.

A half hour later, he was dead.

This photo was taken in 2007.

Returning to the U.S. in June 2003, after 91 days in Iraq, Dwyer seemed a shell to friends.

And he wanted to be a medic. (Dwyer’s first real job was as a transporter for a hospital in the golf resort town of Pinehurst, where his parents had moved after retirement.)

In 2002, Dwyer was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas. The jokester immediately fell in with three colleagues — Angela Minor, Sgt. Jose Salazar, and Knapp. They spent so much time together after work that comrades referred to them as “The Four Musketeers.”

When he deployed, he was pudgy at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds. Now he weighed around 165, and the other Musketeers immediately thought of post-traumatic stress disorder.   Dwyer attributed his skeletal appearance to long days and a diet of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). He showed signs of his jolly old self, so his friends accepted his explanation.   But they soon noticed changes that were more than cosmetic.

When people would teasingly call him “war hero” and ask him to tell about his experiences, or about the famous photo, he would steer the conversation toward the others he’d served with. But Dwyer once confided that another image, also involving a child, disturbed him.

He was standing next to a soldier during a firefight when a boy rode up on a bicycle and stopped beside a weapon lying in the dirt. Under his breath, the soldier beside Dwyer whispered, “Don’t pick it up, kid. Don’t pick it up.”

The boy reached for the weapon and was blasted off his bike.

In a telephone interview later … from what he called the “nut hut” at Beaumont, Dwyer told Newsday that he’d lied on a post-deployment questionnaire that asked whether he’d been disturbed by what he’d seen and done in Iraq. The reason: A PTSD diagnosis could interfere with his plans to seek a police job. Besides, he’d been conditioned to see it as a sign of weakness.

“I’m a soldier,” he said. “I suck it up. That’s our job.”

Dwyer told the newspaper that he’d blown off counseling before but was committed to embracing his treatment this time. He said he hoped to become an envoy to others who avoided treatment for fear of damaging their careers.

“There’s a lot of soldiers suffering in silence,” he said.

“And so it’s a dance between the clinicians and the patient.”

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, feels the VA is a lousy dance partner.

Rieckhoff said the VA’s is a “passive system” whose arcane rules and regulations make it hard for veterans to find help. And when they do get help, he said, it is often inadequate.

“I consider (Dwyer) a battlefield casualty,” he said, “because he was still fighting the war in his head.”

In 2005, Daily Koss Blog referenced Dwyer’s photo in an article about PTSD on MyLeftWing

#1 | Returning Vet PTSD – One Soldier’s Story

This photo was taken on March 25, 2003.

Snapped by AP and published in newspapers and magazines world-wide a week following the invasion, Army medic Pfc. Joseph Dwyer carries an injured Iraqi boy to safety. Caught in the crossfire in a fierce battle near the village of Al Faysaliyah, the lines of hero and victim appear to be well-defined, not blurred.

On October 7, 2005, Dwyer was arrested after a 3 hour standoff with police in which he discharged ‘volley after volley’ of gunfire in his apartment.

And, so this story unfolds from the date of impact, 2003, to the date of conclusion, 2008.  Five years of suffering and dillusion about the “manly” thing to do, has ended in the news.  The part of the story seldom, if ever, followed up on is how the family, he left behind, will unfold.

The children asked what was wrong.

“Joseph is dead,” she told them.

“You said he wasn’t sick any more,” Justin said.

“I know, Justin,” his mother replied. “But I guess maybe the help wasn’t working like we thought it was.”

The kids were too young to understand acronyms like PTSD or to hear a lecture about how Knapp thought the system had failed Dwyer. So she told them that, just as they sometimes have nightmares, “sometimes people get those nightmares in their head and they just can’t get them out, no matter what.”

Despite the efforts she made to get help for Dwyer, Knapp is trying to cope with a deep-seated guilt. She knows that Dwyer shielded her from the images that had haunted him.

Since Dwyer’s death, Justin, now 9, has taken to carrying a newspaper clipping of the Zinn photo around with him. Occasionally, Knapp will catch him huddled with a playmate, showing the photo and telling him about the soldier who used to come to his school and assemble his toys.

Justin wants them to know all about Spc. Joseph Dwyer. His hero.

Joseph Dwyer Obituary [here]

Obituary responses [here], [here], [here], [here], [here]

Joseph is not the first, nor last, example of the ‘time bomb’ effect that PTSD has.  Past posts on TrurhHugger and BlueBloggin have illustrated the consequences and ultimate social and economic impact this nation should be preparing for.  Veterans from past wars have had PTSD symptoms, but were accepted as “he never was the same when he came back”, then they are just written off.   Today’s US veteran was plucked from a consumer society whose deepest thoughts concerned sports, celebrities, cars and electronic toys.  They started out soft.  They were plunged into a physical nightmare where the infrastructure they took for granted was destroyed.  The social norm they are accustomed to is turned upside down. The results of firing their weapons no longer resembles video games.  Bodies no longer evaporate into a haze of pixels.  They hear, see, smell and taste the results of their actions and the actions of their opponents.  This sensory assault upon an American Soldier defies representation by recruiters, news media or politicians.  These sensory memories become their ghosts.  Whether or not a soldier has religious foundation, there is a moral starting point, even for athiests.  The American moral starting point is so foreign from reality on the ground that mental damage should be expected … especially when the same soldier attempts to incorporate back into the world they left.

The only renewable resource this administration has taken advantage of is HUMAN.  Citizen or not, volunteer or not, literate or not, America will accept you into its ranks of cannon fodder.  If you survive, you will be patted on the back, given some bandages and salve (maybe an artificial limb) and expected to go along your way.  This is WRONG! The inequities of war shine a harsh light on class disparity … this angers and motivates the under class to rebel.  This began the impetus for socialism, and it’s more violent offspring, communism …

The slogan from the Vietnam War protests deliberately speaks to this, “What if they had a war, and no one came?” The U.S. military is overwhelmingly recruited from the working class, and convincing our class as a whole to refuse to work for this blood money may be our best chance for both ending the war in Iraq and limiting the imperialist ambitions of the U.S. for future decades.

by Stephen “Flint” Arthur

“Endless development of armed force. Every day we hear of fresh inventions for the more effectual destruction of our fellow-men, fresh expenditure, fresh loans, fresh taxation. Clamorous patriotism, reckless jingoism; the stirring up of international jealousy have become the most lucrative line in politics and journalism. Childhood itself has not been spared; schoolboys are swept into the ranks, to be trained up in hatred… drilled in blind obedience to the government of the moment, whatever the colour of its flag, and when they come to the years of manhood to be laden like pack-horses with cartridges, provisions and the rest of it; to have a rifle thrust into their hands and be taught to charge at the bugle call and slaughter one another right and left like wild beasts, without asking themselves why or for what purpose. Whether they have before them starvelings… or their own brothers roused to revolt by famine-the bugle sounds, the killing must commence.”
Peter Kropotkin – War!

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