Soldier In Iconic Photo Succumbs To His Demons Army medic Joseph Dwyer was famously photographed risking his life to rescue an Iraqi child in 2003. But he spent years battling the psychological scars of war. Dwyer died June 28 in North Carolina.
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Soldier In Iconic Photo Succumbs To His Demons

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Soldier In Iconic Photo Succumbs To His Demons

Soldier In Iconic Photo Succumbs To His Demons

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The face of Army medic Joseph Dwyer became known to the American public in the early days of the war in Iraq. In 2003, he was famously photographed putting his life at risk to rescue an injured Iraqi child.


Private Dwyer didn't see himself as a hero. He knew his personal failures. He struggled with them for years. Joseph Dwyer died late last month in Pinehurst, North Carolina. As Rose Hoban of North Carolina Public Radio reports, he left his comrades also scarred by war.

ROSE HOBAN: Late last month, Joseph Dwyer made his last call for help. Police say when they kicked open the door to Dwyer's home in Pinehurst, North Carolina, he was still alive, but he was having trouble breathing. Pinehurst police captain Floyd Thomas describes the scene.

Captain FLOYD THOMAS (Pinehurst Police): The house was in disarray, and it hadn't been cleaned in a long time. There had been some incidents where he had punched holes in the walls.

HOBAN: Dwyer died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His death has been ruled an accidental overdose. He'd been inhaling aerosol chemicals from cans of compressed air. Captain Thomas was familiar with Dwyer. He had responded to a number of calls to Dwyer's house, starting about a year ago.

Captain THOMAS: We got a call that he was barricaded in his residence. He was hallucinating about there being Iraqis in the house, and wanting to call in air strikes and that sort of thing.

HOBAN: Thomas says he had no idea this was the soldier from the famous photo, until he looked Dwyer up on the Internet. Warren Zinn is the photographer who took that famous picture of Dwyer. He says Dwyer was embarrassed about the attention.

Mr. WARREN ZINN (Photographer): Joseph felt 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.

HOBAN: Dwyer stayed in touch with Zinn by e-mail over the years. Later, he wrote to Zinn that his work as a medic was the best thing he'd ever done. That kind of attitude endeared Dwyer to his fellow soldiers. Roderick Houston, of Chicago, served with Dwyer as a medic in the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry.

Mr. RODERICK HOUSTON (Army Medic): He was just that epitome of that really wholesome, innocent, I just want to help the world, I want to make the world a better place kind of person.

HOBAN: When the two served together, their squadron met enemy forces earlier and more often than any other unit at the beginning of the war. Fighting was intense, but Houston says everyone knew they could count on Dwyer.

Mr. HOUSTON: You could sit back and just kind of watch his mannerisms and watch the things that he says, and just have, like, that kind of American apple pie thought in your head, like, this is what I'm fighting for, you know.

HOBAN: Houston didn't know Dwyer was having problems after coming home until he heard about his death. But he says he isn't surprised. Houston is 100 percent disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Another former comrade contacted for this story says he has nightmares during the day. Both men told NPR that many former soldiers from their units struggle with PTSD and depression. So did Dwyer, who was on disability from the VA. He drank. Sometimes neighbors heard screaming from the little ranch house where Dwyer lived with his wife and daughter. Post-traumatic stress was dogging him, according to his neighbor, Philip Sweet, a Vietnam veteran.

Mr. PHILIP SWEET (Dwyer's Neighbor): He asked me how I coped with it, and I explained to him that I was in Vietnam early on, and it was before it got really bad, so I didn't probably experience a lot of things that he may have.

HOBAN: Veterans Administration officials say Dwyer cycled in and out of VA hospitals up and down the East Coast. Dwyer disappeared from the neighborhood. He told Sweet he was going for treatment. And when he returned last summer, Sweet says his neighbor seemed better. But it didn't last.

Mr. SWEET: It wasn't too long after he got back that his wife and child moved out, and he just kind of became almost a total recluse. I saw him just a few times to speak with him.

HOBAN: Dwyer wrecked his motorcycle, and then his car. Eventually, his contact was limited to the cab driver who came almost daily to take Dwyer to the store, where he bought food and cans of compressed air. By the time he died, he was inhaling chemicals from more than 10 aerosol cans a day. Since learning of his death, Warren Zinn, the photographer, says he's been thinking about Dwyer a lot.

Mr. ZINN: Joseph just happens to, sort of, represent all of these soldiers who are suffering with the same problems. Because these soldiers are trained to go to war, and they're trained to fight. But they're not trained to come home from war.

HOBAN: Joseph Dwyer was buried at a veterans' cemetery in North Carolina. He leaves behind a wife and 2-year-old daughter. He was 31. For NPR News, I'm Rose Hoban in Durham, North Carolina.

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