Joe Dwyer - Rocketed to Hero Status

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Battling the Inner Demons of War

What Joe Dwyer's Death Can Teach Us about PTSD

By Cordula Meyer

Part 2: Rocketed to Hero Status

A 24-year-old Joe Dwyer enlisted in the Army two days after 9/11. He was stationed at Fort Bliss, where he shared a windowless room with three other medics. The four soldiers -- Dwyer, Dionne Knapp, Angela Minor and Jose Salazar, their sergeant -- got on well, and fellow soldiers dubbed them "The Four Musketeers." "We talked about what was important to us, the deep stuff," says Knapp. "Joe was like the kid brother I never had."

When Dionne heard she was being sent to Iraq, she confessed to Joe that she could never leave her two children behind, claiming that she'd rather desert than go to war. The next day, Joe went to see his commanding officer. "Why don't you send me?" he asked. His request was ultimately granted.

In February 2003, Matina accompanied her husband to the bus. To allay her fears, Joe had told her he would be stationed at a hospital in Kuwait. In reality, though, he had been assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Cavalry Regiment, a legendary unit described by an officer as "the tip of the tip of the spear" for the march on the Iraqi capital. "It took 21 days to get to Baghdad," Dwyer later told Newsday. "We had four days that we didn't get shot at."

Warren Zinn, a photographer with the Military Times, was embedded with Dwyer's unit. On the fifth day of fighting, a destroyed bridge brought the six-kilometer-long (four-mile-long) convoy of US military vehicles to a halt. Iraqi rockets rained down on the convoy from both sides. All of a sudden, an Iraqi man carrying an injured boy ran toward the convoy. Dwyer was the first to break cover and run out to meet him. He took the child in his arms and turned around. At that very moment, Zinn snapped a photograph. Another medic later removed a piece of shrapnel from the boy's knee. The boy was four years old. His name was Ali.

The photo was beamed around the globe. Dwyer's wife, Matina, saw the photo at work on the cover of USA Today. Dwyer's mother, Maureen, also saw the photo back home in North Carolina. Maureen had a premonition that her son would never return.


But, in June, just three months after leaving for Iraq, Joe Dwyer did return home. He had lost weight and become serious; he answered questions with monosyllabic words. He made a deal with Matina: He wouldn't tell her what had happened if she wouldn't ask him about the terrible things he had witnessed. Little did they know that this was completely the wrong thing to do.

Back at Fort Bliss, Joe obsessively followed his unit's movements in Iraq online. He also bought two pistols and an assault rifle and practiced with them at the firing range. He panicked whenever he saw a box lying on the side of the road, thinking that it might be a bomb. When he went to restaurants, he would always choose a seat that allowed him to keep his back to the wall so that nobody could sneak up on him from behind.

After "The Four Musketeers" went their separate ways, things started going downhill for Joe. He called Angela Minor almost every day. She knew he spent his days sitting in his Ford Taurus in a Best Buy parking lot, drinking 12 cans of beer, one after another. He also began inhaling Dust-Off in an attempt to drive the demons from his mind -- if only for a short while. While high, he once told Angela something about his flashbacks. "He saw people dying," Angela says. "He saw children dying."

Joe also told her about another episode in Iraqi, when a boy stopped after seeing a weapon lying in the dirt. "Don't pick it up, kid! Don't pick it up!" a soldier next to Joe whispered under his breath. But the boy did pick the gun up, and the soldiers shot him dead. "I don't know who pulled the trigger," Minor recalls. "Joe didn't want us to know. He was looking for forgiveness."

But, as his widow, Matina, says: "He felt there was no forgiveness for him."

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