Battling the Inner Demons of War -Desperation and Oblivion

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Battling the Inner Demons of War

What Joe Dwyer's Death Can Teach Us about PTSD

By Cordula Meyer

joseph dwyer- Desperation and Oblivion
AP / Warren Zinn, The Army Times

Part 3: Desperation and Oblivion

The Dwyers had a modest apartment on the second floor of the Vista Village Apartments. Before long, Joe would only open the front door if he had a pistol in his hand. Almost every other night, when Martina came home from work, he would think his own wife was an Iraqi insurgent. His war had clearly not ended.

On those nights, Martina had no choice but to spend hours waiting in her car in front of the house until he had either sniffed himself unconscious or his paranoia had subsided. Lying side-by-side in bed at night, Joe would inhale from his aerosol can about every 30 seconds. When he chose to sleep on the living-room floor, Matina would listen from the other room to the psssh-psssh sound of the spray can.

She begged him to stop. But the psssh psssh continued.

She would kneel down beside him on the brown carpet, Bible in hand, reading aloud: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...." And she would pray: "God, please make him stop."

Psssh. Psssh.

Matina now says she can't stand the sound of a spray can.

Likewise, Dwyer's friends became so concerned that they decided to act. Angela Minor overdrew her bank account and flew down from New York. The three other "Musketeers" wanted to convince Joe to at least surrender his weapons.

The Shooting Incident

Joe had tears of joy in his eyes when he saw his three friends. But he refused to give up his guns -- ever. He was convinced that he was still in Iraq -- and that he needed his weapons to defend himself. The three friends' planned intervention had failed. The next day, Dionne telephoned a number of hospitals and counseling centers. But no one could help.

Not long thereafter -- at some time around 9 PM on October 6, 2005 -- police officers were dispatched to the Vista Village Apartments. Joe Dwyer had slid a mirror out of the apartment's bedroom window to help him spot Iraqis creeping across the roof in the twilight. He picked up the phone and used military code for calling in an air strike, ordering fighter jets to speed to his own address.

Suddenly he heard a noise. Were Iraqis trying to break in, he thought?

Without warning, Private First Class Joseph Dwyer opened fire -- through the windows, the walls and the ceiling. He fired off more than 200 rounds. Under normal circumstances, Texan police officers don't take kindly to people firing guns around apartment complexes. But then -- luckily for Dwyer -- his commanding officer intervened, showing the head of the SWAT team Dwyer's famous photo. He told them that Dwyer was no nut case, but an American hero, whose own father and brothers were also police officers.

The police officers telephoned Joe's brother Brian, a fellow law-enforcement officer living on Long Island. Sitting on his living-room couch in his pajamas, Brian tried to calm his little brother down. Three hours after the standoff started, Joe laid down his weapons and gave himself up.

The next day, Dionne Knapp sent the commander of Fort Bliss an e-mail, saying that Army officials were "proud to display him as a hero" but had now "turned their back on him." In the wake of the shooting, Joe was admitted to a hospital for treatment. He was given medication and counseling. Another veteran, who also suffered from PTSD, came to talk with him every day. But it didn't help.

Dwyer was given an honorary discharge from the Army. A little over a year later, on July 10, 2007, the Restoration and Resilience Center opened its doors at Fort Bliss.


Army psychiatrist John Fortunato has a small office in the outpatient clinic. He has a buzz cut and wears khaki pants. His office furniture is strictly no-frills; he's not interested in keeping up appearances. Fortunato is a Benedictine monk, but he also fought in Vietnam. When he returned from Southeast Asia, he found himself face down in the dirt every time a car backfired. Now, whenever a soldier insists he's absolutely fine, Fortunato replies: "Do you think if you just wait this out, it will go away? Go down under Gaywick Boulevard and see those guys living in cardboard boxes who are about my age. Those are my buddies from Vietnam. I guess it didn't go away."

Combat trauma usually triggers three typical behaviors. First, soldiers avoid situations that scare them. Joe Dwyer, for example, didn't go out to see movies anymore.

Second, they are continuously plagued by memories of combat. They see their fallen comrades, and they see themselves killing others -- as if it were a film projected in their head on a continuous loop.

Last but not least, they are constantly on edge. In a combat zone, the only way to stay alive is to keep all your senses on full alert at all times. But, off the battlefield, such hyper-alertness is damaging. "They never relax," Fortunato says, "and they come back, and their central nervous system is really kind of fried."

The first thing doctors do is to prescribe sedatives. Soldiers are then given counseling to encourage them to speak about the images plaguing their minds in the hopes of reducing their impact. It also helps for them to discuss their experiences with others who have had similar ones. Oftentimes, though, even that is not enough.

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