The Iraq war soldier made famous by a photograph, and by his compassion for an Iraqi child, dies back home:

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.

Dwyer can only be described as the victim of the indifference of the U.S. system to the men and women that we send into harm’s way. Once they’ve been used up in Mr. Bush’s war, they are, to coin a Bushian term, on their own. The Newsday story continues:

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.

Dwyer had taken to sleeping in a closet, arming himself with guns and knives, and inhaling aerosol to help him sleep. The most chilling quote in the piece comes from Dwyer’s mom:

“Talking to him, he knew he was going to die,” Maureen Dwyer said.

Read the entire piece. Every American should.

BTW, Dwyer is not alone. A 2004 Army study found that 1 in 8 returning troops suffered from PTSD. By 2007 the estimate spiked to 1 in 2.

Records show roughly 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with the illness, also known as PTSD, since 2003. Officials believe that many more are likely keeping their illness a secret.

“I don’t think right now we … have good numbers,” Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker said…

And not only has the VA failed to provide adequate numbers, and adequate treatment, for vets suffering from PTSD, it appears they’ve also fudged the numbers, to undercount the number of post-deployment suicides taking place among our returning troops.

(May 6) At a hearing held by the House Veterans’ Committee today, chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., said he thought there was “criminal negligence” and “clear evidence of a bureaucratic coverup” in the VA’s handling of mental health findings.

“If you have a thousand, and you said it could be more, of suicide attempts per month, we’ve got some real difficult issues,” Filner said to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James Peake.

But most of the committee’s time was spent on a report aired by CBS News last year that said the VA was under-reporting the magnitude of suicides among veterans by manipulating the data.

The Army is facing particular burdens, since it is mostly Army, Army National Guard and Reserve troops who are pulling the 2, 3 and 4 rotations to fight this war (not to leave out the Marines, but the Army is currently the more broken force.) And all of the signs point to the homefront being unequal to the task of handling hundreds of thousands of psychologically (and physically) wounded warriors coming home. Hell, Democratic vets in Congress had to fight the “commander in chief” AND fellow veterans like John McCain just to get a G.I. Bill with decent educational benefits for the troops last month, while the GOP simply fought for more incentives to keep soldiers in, and deployed, indefinitely in Iraq. (Of course, now that it has passed, members of the GOP who opposed the bill, up to and including Bush and McCain, are trying to jump on the GI Bill bandwagon…)

Shame on us for not taking better care of our soldiers when they come home, starting with the Bush administration, but ultimately, including us all.

For information on what you can do to help returning veterans, go to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America website. And Godspeed to Pfc Dwyer’s grieving family.

Related: Visit the site for HBO’s new miniseries “Generation Kill” here.


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