Private Joseph Dwyer entered Iraq in 2003 as part of the American spear heading for the heart of Baghdad. He became an instant celebrity when a photographer captured him carrying a helpless child to safety during a battle near the Euphrates. The photo was widely circulated, as it represented the ideal of the heroic American soldier risking life and limb to save innocents.
And the photo didn’t lie; Dwyer was undoubtedly a hero.
I wish I could tell you Dwyer, after receiving a hero’s welcome, settled down and lived happily ever after.
But there isn’t a happy ending to his story.
Although the bullets and the bombs spared him, he did not return home unscathed.
Back home in El Paso, Dwyer was a shadow of the good man he once was. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychologically traumatic event. Shortly after returning home, Dwyer got in a car accident when he swerved to dodge an imaginary bomb. Whereas before the war he had been an outgoing, amiable person, he was now antisocial and paranoid.
He stopped going to therapy sessions paid for by the government. His friends and family tried everything they could to help, but to no avail. Nothing seemed to be capable of erasing the memory of the horrific things he had witnessed.
Dwyer may have left Iraq, but Iraq hadn’t left him.
So he turned to drugs to help ease the pain. He lost weight and became violent. Dwyer shot up his apartment complex, certain the enemy had followed him home.
Last June, authorities found Private Dwyer in his apartment dying of an apparent drug overdose. He was just one of thousands of the war’s invisible casualties.
Last week, the Army reported that 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Some of these suicides occurred while the troops were deployed, but a vast majority of them took place, like with Dwyer, after they returned home. The army claims many of these suicides were caused by stress unrelated to war, such as financial and relationship issues. This is a cop out.
Hardened soldiers do not kill themselves over a difficult girlfriend or not being able to pay their bills. If anything, these events were the final straw afflicting a more serious underlying issue. That is, most of these 128 suicides were caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Clearly, something needs to be done. Here’s what needs to happen:
First, the government needs to invest in programs to better mentally prepare soldiers for the trauma they will endure in a war zone. This includes more thorough psychological background checks for all new recruits to better identify which soldiers will need special attention not only when they are deployed, but when they return home.
Second, military officers should be trained to be more conscious of their men’s psychological well being. This will allow them to help psychologically strained soldiers find assistance when the need arises. This won’t cure post-traumatic stress disorder, but it will go a long way to helping prevent it.
Third, the grossly under-funded Department of Veterans Affairs needs more money to implement more effective psychological treatment programs. Alternatives to standard therapy must be explored, such as the successful peer-counseling program (where war veterans discuss their troubling experiences with other war veterans).
Fourth, increased public support for organizations like the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. The Fund has provided over $65 million to soldiers suffering from unconventional injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder. Every dime goes directly to the Fund’s programs to help wounded soldiers.
Fifth, donate to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. This means you. It takes less than five minutes. Every little bit, even $1, helps. To donate online, go to fallenheroesfund.org.
Our men and women in uniform lay their lives on the line every day to protect us and we must do whatever is within our power to protect them. Although it is too late to save Private Dwyer, we still have a chance to ensure that every American soldier has the happy ending they deserve.
MIKE HOWER just donated to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. He hopes you will do the same. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.