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Battling the Inner Demons of War - A Unique Therapy Regimen

What Joe Dwyer's Death Can Teach Us about PTSD

By Cordula Meyer

joseph dwyer - Battling the Inner Demons of War
AP / Warren Zinn, The Army Times

Part 4: A Unique Therapy Regimen

Fortunato has identified nine areas in a soldier's psyche that his program works to address. First he tries to alleviate some of the nervousness and constant tension. The head drives the body crazy, as Fortunato puts it, so his program aims to relax at least the body. For example, battle-scarred veterans are given acupuncture treatments, massages and biofeedback.

There is also Reiki, a Japanese form of therapy that Fortunato calls "the craziest thing we do here." He describes it as a bit like a laying-on of hands. When his superiors first heard about it, they thought that he was the one who had gone crazy.

Likewise, veterans play water polo twice a week. "This helps them socialize again," Fortunato explains, "because the pills can't do that." Granted, his patients are given psychopharmaceuticals, but only half as many as other doctors tend to prescribe.

On Thursdays, the soldiers are obliged to go out in public. For a person who has had first-hand experience of house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, the local mall is the most frightening place in America. "Soldiers call Wal-Mart 'The Evil Empire,'" Fortunato says: It has lots of people, you can't see what's happening everywhere, and there's no way to assume control. Precisely for these reasons, Fortunato regularly marches his troops over to Wal-Mart, and whenever they feel the panic rising, they use breathing techniques he's taught them to help rein in their fears.

About 60 percent of the veterans who undergo this therapy regime are eventually healthy enough to return to duty. Half of that is usually considered a success. Fortunato estimates that every soldier discharged on account of PTSD costs the army $350,000 (€263,000), whereas his program costs only $28,000 per patient. Still, he is quick to point one thing out: "I really don't care about the numbers," he says. "I care about the soldiers. But I had to sell this."

Since starting his program, Fortunato has been visited by almost every high-ranking member of the American military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stopped by, for example, as has Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Other visitors have included senators and members of Congress as well as top European military officials.

The longer the war in Iraq drags on, and the more violent the fighting in Afghanistan becomes, the more pressing the need to address PTSD. And it appears that no one has had more success treating it than John Fortunato.

Descent into Death

Matina Dwyer says her husband often wished he had lost a leg in the war instead of his mind. "Dr. Fortunato explained things to us we did not know about," she says. Such as how important talking is.

After he was discharged from the army, Joe Dwyer was given a full disability pension, which amounted to about $2700 (€2,025) a month. He and Matina moved back in with his parents in North Carolina, into their lovely, big brick house with its own boat landing right on the lakefront. But, even there, Joe couldn't free himself from his memories of Iraq. He took to fishing for 16 hours a day. He drove his Harley around aimlessly. He was pleased about the birth of his daughter, Meagan, but the baby started crying whenever he got near.

Things took a turn for the worse when Dwyer bought the house in Pinehurst. Although rosebushes were blooming in front of the house and the air was filled with the smell of pine trees, Joe pulled down the blinds and spent his days playing war games on his computer. He bought himself an AR-15 assault rifle. When Matina tried to take it away from him, he threatened her: "Someone's going to die."

In August 2007, he returned to the veterans' hospital for another six months. But, within five days of returning home, he was back to inhaling Dust-Off.

Matina took their daughter and moved out. Three months later, Joe Dwyer was dead.

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