Soldier In Iconic Photo Succumbs To His Demons

Army Medic Joseph Dwyer i i

This iconic image of Joseph Dwyer by photographer Warren Zinn showed the Army medic rescuing an Iraqi boy who was injured during a heavy battle between the U.S. and Iraqi forces. The image made Dwyer an overnight hero among many in the American public. Warren Zinn/Courtesy of Army Times hide caption

itoggle caption Warren Zinn/Courtesy of Army Times
Army Medic Joseph Dwyer

This iconic image of Joseph Dwyer by photographer Warren Zinn showed the Army medic rescuing an Iraqi boy who was injured during a heavy battle between the U.S. and Iraqi forces. The image made Dwyer an overnight hero among many in the American public.

Warren Zinn/Courtesy of Army Times

Behind The Lens

Photographer Warren Zinn reflects on the photo he took of Dwyer and how it may have played a role in the servicemember's death.

The face of Army medic Pfc. Joseph Dwyer became known to the American public in the early days of the Iraq war. In 2003, he was famously photographed putting his life at risk to rescue an injured Iraqi child. He garnered accolades for his selflessness on the battlefield and became known as one of the first "heroes" of the Iraq war.

But, Dwyer never came to terms with the outpouring of public adulation. After years of struggling with psychological problems, the 31-year-old died June 28 in North Carolina from an overdose of inhaled chemicals.

Cpt. Floyd Thomas of the Pinehurst Police Department, says he responded to a number of calls for help from Dwyer's small ranch house last year. The final call for help came in late June, when Thomas says he kicked in the door and Dwyer's house "was in disarray and hadn't been cleaned in a long time." Thomas says he saw that Dwyer "had punched holes in the walls."

During an earlier incident, the police had found Dwyer barricaded in his home, "hallucinating about there being Iraqis in the house and wanting to call in air strikes." Thomas says he did not know Dwyer was the soldier from the famous photograph until he looked him up on the Internet.

Warren Zinn, the photographer who took that picture of Dwyer, says Dwyer was always embarrassed by the attention he received after it was published.

"Joseph felt that there were thousands of other soldiers doing exactly what he did. It just happened to be that there was a photographer in front of him that made his moment more noticeable than others," says Zinn, who was working as an embedded photographer for The Army Times when he captured the moment on film.

Dwyer stayed in touch with Zinn by e-mail after the image was published. He had told Zinn that his work as a medic in Iraq was the best thing he'd ever done. That positive attitude endeared Dwyer to his fellow soldiers.

Roderick Houston, of Chicago, served with Dwyer as a medic in the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry. He says while Dwyer was in Iraq "he was the epitome of that really wholesome, innocent, 'I want to make the world a better place' kind of person."

Houston says he didn't know Dwyer had been having problems after coming home from war until he heard about his death in June. But he adds he was not surprised by the news. Houston himself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says.

Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs say prior to his death, Dwyer cycled in and out of VA hospitals along the East Coast. According to neighbor Philip Sweet, Dwyer disappeared from his neighborhood last year and entered treatment. Sweet says when Dwyer returned to North Carolina last summer, he seemed better. But, "it wasn't too long after he came back that his wife and child moved out and he just kind of became a total recluse."

Dwyer would later wreck his motorcycle and his car. His contact with the outside world became limited to the cab driver who came to take Dwyer to the store — where he bought food and cans of compressed air. By the time he died, Dwyer was inhaling aerosol from more than 10 cans of compressed air every day, officials say.

Since learning of his death, photographer Zinn says he has thought about Dwyer often.

"Joseph just happens to sort of represent all of these soldiers who are suffering with the same problems," Zinn says. "These soldiers are trained to go to war. And they're trained to fight. But they're not trained to come home from war."

Dwyer was buried at a veterans' cemetery in North Carolina. He is survived by his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

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