Photo: Warren Zinn, AP via Army Times
BY MARTIN C. EVANS
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 Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, who was raised in Mount Sinai, 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, he shot up his El Paso, Texas, apartment and held police at bay for three hours with a 9-mm handgun, believing Iraqis were trying to get in.
Last month, 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 anymore. 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 1 in 5 U.S. troops who exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression following service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Half of those troops 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 inpatient treatments, none of it worked," his father, Patrick Dennis Dwyer, said. "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 inpatient 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 counseling. 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.
"I know I don't need to be carrying a weapon," Dwyer told Newsday in a 2005 interview. "And I'm scared of going home without having one, even though I know probably nobody's going to attack me."
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 check, while being in and out of psychiatric care.
"Talking to him, he knew he was going to die," Maureen Dwyer said.
A lack of services
After her son was discharged from Northport, Maureen Dwyer said she was especially concerned because there were no VA mental health facilities near his Pinehurst, N.C., home.
Five days after arriving home, Dwyer left the house to buy more Dust-Off. While he was away, his wife gathered a few belongings, called Maureen Dwyer to tell her she was taking their daughter and left.
On June 28, Dwyer called for a taxi to take him to the hospital, but he was too weak to open the door. Breaking through, Pinehurst police Lt. Michael Wilson -- who said he had been to the apartment before for earlier incidents -- found Dwyer on the floor, coherent but unable to walk. Within minutes, Dwyer was dead.
"All of a sudden his eyes got fixed and he just stopped responding," Wilson said.
Dwyer, dressed in his Army uniform, was buried Wednesday at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery, after a Roman Catholic funeral. The cemetery is about an hour's drive from where Matina and Meagan now live in North Carolina.
Maureen Dwyer, who broke into sobs as she spoke about her son, 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."
Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.