PINEHURST, N.C. – 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, a colleague in the Army, 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 Mideast. 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.
On March 25, 2003, near Baghdad, 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, then returned, cradling the boy in his arms.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview the soldier in “the photo.” The attention embarrassed Dwyer.
Returning to the U.S. in June 2003, after 91 days in Iraq, Dwyer seemed a shell to friends.
In spring 2004, Dwyer was prescribed antidepressants and referred for counseling. But his behavior went from merely odd to dangerous.
In the summer of 2005, he was removed to the barracks for 72 hours after trashing the apartment looking for an enemy infiltrator. He was admitted to Fort Bliss’ William Beaumont Army Medical Center for treatment of his inhalant addiction.
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.
The day of a 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.
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 told the AP. “There are civil liberties, and VA respects that those civil liberties are important.”
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, feels 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.”
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 children 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 her efforts to help Dwyer, Knapp is trying to cope with a deep-seated guilt.
Since Dwyer’s death, Knapp’s son, Justin, now 9, has taken to carrying a newspaper clipping of the Zinn photo. 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.