Monday, July 21, 2008


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Celebrated soldier fell victim to 'demons'
Story Highlights
Enlisting after 9/11, Joseph Dwyer found himself at "the tip of the spear" in Iraq

He became famous after being photographed helping a boy near Baghdad

After his return, Dwyer increasingly lost touch with reality

31-year-old died in June after "huffing" cans of aerosol

PINEHURST, North Carolina (AP) -- Officers had been to the white ranch house many times before over the past year to respond to a "barricade situation." Each had ended uneventfully, with Joseph Dwyer coming out or telling police in a calm voice through the window that he was OK.

But this time was different.

The Iraq war veteran had called a taxi service to take him to the emergency room. But when the driver arrived, Dwyer shouted that he was too weak to get up and open the door.

The officers asked Dwyer for permission to kick it in.

"Go ahead!" he yelled.

They found Dwyer lying on his back, his clothes soiled with urine and feces. Scattered on the floor 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."

A half-hour later, he was dead.

When Dionne Knapp learned of her friend's June 28 death, her first reaction was to be angry at Dwyer. How could he leave his wife and daughter like this? Didn't he know he had friends who cared about him, who wanted to help?

But as time passed, Knapp's anger turned toward the government.

A photograph taken in the first days of the war had made the medic from New York's Long Island a symbol of the United States' good intentions in the Middle East. When he returned home, he was hailed as a hero.

But for most of the past five years, the 31-year-old soldier had writhed in a private hell, shooting at imaginary enemies, sleeping in a closet bunker and trying desperately to huff away the "demons" in his head. When his personal problems became public, efforts were made to help him, but nothing seemed to work.

This broken, frightened man had once been the embodiment of American might and compassion. If the military couldn't save him, Knapp thought, what hope was there for the thousands suffering in anonymity?

"This is what I want to do"

Like many, Dwyer joined the military in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The son and brother of New York cops, he wanted to save people, not kill them. So he became a medic.

In 2002, Dwyer was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, and 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.

Knapp had two young children and was going through a messy divorce. Dwyer stepped in as a surrogate dad, showing up in uniform at her son Justin's kindergarten and coming by the house to assemble toys that Knapp couldn't figure out.

When it became clear that the U.S. would invade Iraq, Knapp became distraught, confiding to Dwyer that she would rather disobey her deployment orders than leave her kids.

Dwyer asked to go in her place. When she protested, he insisted: "Trust me, this is what I want to do. I want to go."

Dwyer assured his parents, Maureen and Patrick -- and his new wife, Matina -- that he was being sent to Kuwait and would probably stay far from the action.

But Dwyer was attached to the 3rd Infantry's 7th Cavalry Regiment, what one officer called "the tip of the tip of the spear."

On March 25, 2003, near Baghdad, Iraq, Army Times photographer Warren Zinn watched as a man ran toward U.S. soldiers, carrying a white flag and his injured 4-year-old son. Zinn clicked away as Dwyer darted out to meet the man and then returned, cradling the boy in his arms.

The photo -- of a half-naked boy, a kaffiyeh scarf tied around his shrapnel-injured leg and his mouth set in a grimace of pain, and of a bespectacled Dwyer dressed in full battle gear, his M-16 rifle dangling by his side -- appeared on front pages and magazine covers around the world.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview the soldier in "the photo." The attention embarrassed Dwyer.

"Really, I was just one of a group of guys," he told a military publication. "I wasn't standing out more than anyone else."

A changed man

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

The 6-foot-1 soldier had dropped to about 165 pounds, causing the other Musketeers to immediately think of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dwyer attributed his skeletal appearance to long days and a diet of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and his friends accepted the explanation.

But they soon noticed changes that were more than cosmetic.

At restaurants, Dwyer insisted on sitting with his back to the wall so no one could sneak up on him. He turned down invitations to the movies, saying the theaters were too crowded. The arid landscape around El Paso, and the dark-skinned Hispanic population, reminded him of Iraq.

Dwyer, raised Roman Catholic but never particularly religious before, now would spend lunchtime by himself, poring over his Bible.

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. 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 spring 2004, Dwyer was prescribed antidepressants and referred for counseling. But his behavior went from merely odd to dangerous.

One day, he swerved to avoid what he thought was a roadside bomb and crashed into a convenience store sign. He began answering his apartment door with a pistol in his hand and would call friends, babbling and disoriented from huffing.

In summer 2005, he was removed to the barracks for 72 hours after trashing the apartment looking for an enemy infiltrator. He was admitted to Bliss' William Beaumont Army Medical Center for treatment of his inhalant addiction.

But things continued to worsen. That October, the Musketeers decided it was time for an intervention.

Dwyer refused to surrender his guns but agreed to let Matina lock them up. Less than a week later, his paranoia reached a crescendo.

On October 6, 2005, Dwyer barricaded himself in his apartment. Imagining Iraqis swarming up the sides and across the roof, he fired his pistol through the door, windows and ceiling. After a three-hour police standoff, Dwyer was admitted for psychiatric treatment.

In a telephone interview later that month 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 said, "I'm a soldier," he said. "I suck it up. That's our job."

Dwyer told the newspaper he was committed to embracing his treatment this time.

In January 2006, Joseph and Matina Dwyer moved back to North Carolina. But his shadow enemy followed him there.

Losing touch with reality

Dwyer was discharged from the Army in March 2006 and living off disability. That May, Matina Dwyer gave birth to a daughter, Meagan Kaleigh.

He seemed to be getting by, but setbacks would occur without warning.

In June 2007, Matina Dwyer told police her husband had become enraged when she took away his AR-15 assault rifle and threatened that "someone was going to die" if she didn't give it back. She moved out and sought a protective order.

The following month, Dwyer checked into an inpatient program at New York's Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He stayed for six months.

He came home in March with more than a dozen prescriptions. But within five days of his discharge, Dwyer's symptoms had returned with such ferocity that the family decided it was time to get Matina and 2-year-old Meagan out.

On April 10, Matina Dwyer filed for custody and division of property.

Dwyer's grip on reality loosened further. He was sleeping during the day and "patrolling" all night. Unable to possess a handgun, he placed knives around the house for protection.

In those last months, Dwyer opened up a little to his parents.

What bothered him most, he said, was the sheer volume of the gunfire. He talked about the grisly wounds he'd treated and dwelled on the people he was unable to save.

When Maureen Dwyer saw Zinn's photo, she'd had a premonition that her son wouldn't come home from Iraq.

"And he never did."

The health care "dance"

Police are treating Dwyer's death as an accidental overdose. Friends and family see it differently.

The day of the 2005 standoff, Knapp spent hours on the telephone trying to get help for Dwyer. She was frustrated by a military bureaucracy that would not act unless his petrified wife complained and with a civilian system that insisted Dwyer was the military's problem.

In a letter to post commander Maj. Gen. Robert Lennox, Knapp expressed anger that Army officials who were "proud to display him as a hero ... now had turned their back on him..." (Lennox said Dwyer "had a great (in my opinion) caregiver.")

Some wondered why the VA couldn't involuntarily commit Dwyer. But Dr. Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief of the VA's Office of Mental Health, said it's not that simple.

"Veterans are civilians, and VA is guided by state law about involuntary commitment," she said. "There are civil liberties, and VA respects that those civil liberties are important."

Zeiss said that although caregivers must be 100 percent committed to creating an environment in which veterans feel comfortable confronting their demons, the patient must be equally committed to following through.

"And so it's a dance between the clinicians and the patient."

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

"I consider [Dwyer] a battlefield casualty," he said, "because he was still fighting the war in his head."

Nightmares in his head

The Sunday after the Fourth of July, Knapp attended services at Scotsdale Baptist, the El Paso church where she and Dwyer had been baptized together in 2004.

On the way out of the sanctuary with her children, she checked her phone and noticed an e-mail: Joseph had been buried that day.

She made it to her car. Then she lost it.

Trying to explain, she told the kids that, just as they occasionally 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.

"I just owe him so much for that."

Since Dwyer's death, Justin, now 9, has taken to carrying a newspaper clipping of the Zinn photo around with him. He shows it to playmates and tells them about the soldier who used to come to his school and assemble his toys.

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

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� 2008 Cable News Network


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