Celebrated soldier dies tormented by war memories

This 2003 image of Joseph Dwyer carrying a young Iraqi boy to safety had represented a heroic view of the US invasion. Photo: AP

For many US veterans, coming home is the hardest fight, reports Martin Evans from Melville, New York.

THE March 2003 image became one of the most iconic of the US invasion of Iraq: that of a bespectacled American soldier carrying an Iraqi child to safety. The photograph of Joseph Dwyer was used by news outlets around the world.

After being lionised by many as the human face of the US effort to rebuild a troubled Iraq, Mr Dwyer brought the battlefield home with him, often grappling violently with delusions he was being hunted by Iraqi killers.

His internal terror became so bad that, in 2005, he shot up his El Paso, Texas, apartment and held police at bay for three hours with a nine-millimetre handgun, believing Iraqis were trying to get in.

On June 28, police in Pinehurst, North Carolina, said the 31-year-old collapsed and died at his home after abusing an aerosol, which he had taken to sniffing to drug himself to sleep. Mr Dwyer had moved to North Carolina after living in Texas.

Mr Dwyer, who joined the army two days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 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 US invasion.

Since then he had 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, North Carolina. "He wasn't Joseph any more. Joseph never came home."

Mr 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 existed for the one in five US 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 received "minimally adequate treatment".

"He went away to inpatient treatments none of it worked," his father, Patrick Dwyer, said. "And the problem is there are not adequate resources for post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Maureen Dwyer said her son received inpatient care for six months at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Centre, beginning last August. After doctors discharged him in March, she said, his anxieties returned with such intensity that his wife, Matina, 30, took their daughter Meagan, 2, and moved out five days later.

Maureen Dwyer 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.

After his Iraq deployment ended, Mr 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.

"I know I don't need to be carrying a weapon," Mr 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."

Mr Dwyer's mother said he left the service in March 2006. Unable to hold a job, he lived with his wife and daughter on Veterans Affairs disability payments.

Mr Dwyer, dressed in his army uniform, was buried last Wednesday at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery, North Carolina, after a Catholic funeral.