A Good and Caring Person

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Photo: Warren Zinn

Combat sears the mind and body in ways we can only begin to understand. Everyone comes home from war changed. Tragically, many troops have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from chronic combat stress, and many have gone on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Spec. Joe Dwyer was one of those soldiers. He went to war as a combat medic with the 3rd Infantry Division, serving with 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, during its headlong rush to Baghdad in 2003. Immortalized by a Military Times photograph depicting him carrying a young Iraqi child, he went on to see a great deal of suffering on all sides during his tour, and he brought many ghosts home with him.

Dwyer tried mightily to beat these demons, but eventually succumbed to the struggle. On June 28, he died from the effects of various chemicals he ingested to kill himself. His wife, from whom he'd been estranged for a year, said it best: "He was a very good and caring person. He was just never the same when he came back, because of all the things he saw. He tried to seek treatment, but it didn't work."

By Phillip Carter |  July 8, 2008; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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We miss you, Joe. The troopers you helped patch up in '03 will always remember you. GARRYOWEN!

Posted by: Ray Kimball | July 8, 2008 7:17 AM

So, as an old EMR doc, who do we blame for the OD deaths of non soldiers - which vastly exceeds those of military personnel...
The fact that you reading this are not strung out on drugs and booze is that you made a choice. The same choice is/was available to all those who died from drugs.
Your sympathy is best directed towards the parents who were let down by their child...

Posted by: Dr. O | July 8, 2008 8:28 AM

It is a tolerance for a strain of toxicity within our culture that makes the "choice" biased against the young (veteran or not)for which we should be very angry.

Posted by: Bill Keller | July 8, 2008 8:53 AM

Phil....I need to ask you a question. I have read so many stories about the psychological trauma, PTSD, etc., that our Iraq vets suffer from, as well as complaints about 15 month tours. My father-in-law was in the European Theater for 4 straight years in WW2, as well as in Korea later. And we all know people who were in Vietnam. In those wars, our troops were fighting the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS, Imperial Japanese Army, the North Koreans, the NVA, etc., enemies who were organized troops with artillery, tanks, etc. If I'm not mistaken, most of our troops in Iraq don't leave the big fortified bases; relatively few see combat, and it's not like fighting the equivalent of the Wehrmacht or the NVA. And the casualty rate is nowhere near WW2, Korea, or Vietnam. Yet the media makes it sound like the Iraq War is the most searing war ever. So I'm wondering about our Professional Volunteer Army, if it's finding it so traumatic to fight loosely organized bands of guerillas. It's war, of course, and people are killed and wounded horribly. I'm not denigrating our troops, but the media makes it seem like there is a lot more complaining and hand-wringing than in other wars. Is the current generation of soldiers more "sensitive" than in the past? Or is the media going off the deep end, as usual?

Posted by: fg42 | July 8, 2008 10:20 AM

FG42, I think what the difference is that all of the past conflicts you mention had much larger pools of military personnel and the military incorporated longer breaks (2-3 weeks) for those who deployed on the front lines. Here we have people stuck in a war zone with no "safe" area to redeploy for R&R during their year-long tour, and we have people getting their 4th, 5th deployment into conflict because of the limited personnel pool.

So yes, our civilian leadership is consciously ignoring the lessons learned from past conflicts due to political considerations. What's new?

Posted by: Jason | July 8, 2008 11:25 AM

FG42 and any others who question PTSD. First of all, any soldier in combat suffers some level of PTSD. Watch Ken Burn's doc on WWII where 70 yr old men talk of still suffering PTSD. Some overcome it better than others - that is the nature of humans. Second, it is NOT the MEDIA being the bogeyman, let's blame the messenger! The same thinking went on during Vietnam. During WWII (and Korea)PTSD was not talked about, poorly understood, and even downplayed by the military and Govt. Third, we were not even fighting for 4 yrs in the European Theater. 12/41 - 04/45 = 3 1/2yrs. But then Operation Torch in N Africa wasn't until 11/02. You do the math.

Posted by: Alan | July 8, 2008 12:12 PM

To fg42, I would argue that the different casualty rate actually has alot to do with it. Alot more soliders were killed or injured in earlier wars - you had much higher casualty rates. So either those casualties couldn't develop PTSD (because they were dead from wounds or disease), or they were missing a limb, etc and that was the explanation for any behavior. In Iraq, our soldiers live, or are physically unharmed, but their near-death experiences manifest in exclusively psychological ways. Those units on the front lines in the Civil War, or WWI, or WWII, would have been killed or wounded several times over in the time it has taken us to fubar Iraq with same soldiers doing tour after tour. The soldiers who marched in the review of the Army of the Potomac at the end of the Civil War were, by and large, not the soldiers who fought at Antietam, Gettysburg or Manassas.

And as Alan notes, PTSD has always been around (whether called shell shock or something else) it just was handled differently.

Posted by: Andy | July 8, 2008 1:40 PM

WWI and WWII was hell for many. There are members of my family who could not talk of what the war had put them trough, and members who died in agony, in the air and on the ground who never made it back.

My father would still rather not talk about anything in the past, even if it's only a year or two old.

Mind altering trauma can come in by way of a long war, or just the terror of one short day.

Recovery can often be swift if the trama was brief, or may last a life time, which is common when the opportunity for recovery is delayed and instead there are more traumatic events.

I find it appalling that some of you could be so callous to suggest that others with troubles should just 'choose' not to have them. That's like telling a man with crushed legs to choose to get up and walk.

Very few people choose to have a traumatized mind, it's not comforting.

Alcohol and drugs are, for most with a condition of the mind, a method of self medication, to ease the pain. It's a logical choice for those with few other options, the men we discard.

For all you who think a Hallmark card with the happy phrase "pull your self up by your boot straps" will work, for people with damaged minds... you deem machiavellian at best. I hope you never have to go through what they do every day. I hope you never become doctors, or leaders of men becuase you have obviously taken no effort to understand the problem.

A leader who does not take the time to understand what affects the minds of his own men, and the mind of his opponents, is infective at best, but more probably a serious liability.

You can't win a war of harts and minds if you have no clue what the trauma of being in a war zone does to the minds of many good men.

Before a battle, be it in your fox hole or in your comfortable command bunker, you may kneel to may pray before the action starts. But if things get real, and you do come in harms way, your pleas for help will not be to god, but to the brave combat medics.

Medics like this man who in both life and death should be honored, not castigated.

Funny thing is, I suspect you are too thick to feel ashamed. The comment "sympathy is best directed towards the parents who were let down by their child" is typical. They were not let down, for their son served with honor. It is Spec. Joe Dwyer who was let down by us as a nation.

After getting him back in one piece, we made little effort to reintegrate him into our society and help him with his trauma. We failed to make a caring mans life worth living, after he had cared for others.

The media is not making a big deal over PTSD, it's not even doing much coverage of the war at all. Compared to other wars, where the news of the war was covered in the paper every day, and larger events on the ground regularly made the front page, this war is hardly mentioned and what coverage there is about the politics of the war at home, not the events of the war on the ground.

Posted by: James M | July 8, 2008 2:13 PM

FG42,

There were a lot of PTSD cases in WW2, it is just that it was undercounted. And it wasn't just on the frontlines, either. Some line units suffered more psych casualties than physical ones.

The method of treatment was also different. They would give the soldier some downtime in the rear, to see if he was still effective. Many of them went back to the front.

You could argue that the VFW/Legion system post-war was a kind of group therapy, where they medicate themselves in a secure setting.

Posted by: Jimmy | July 8, 2008 2:44 PM

FG42 -- Go rent "The Best Years of Our Lives". Much of what the vets in that movie went through might be best explained as PTSD. I'm not a psychologist, but it took a long time for many of our veterans to recover from their wartime experiences.

Posted by: DanPatrick | July 8, 2008 3:15 PM

"The method of treatment was also different. They would give the soldier some downtime in the rear, to see if he was still effective. Many of them went back to the front."

Unfortuantely, this is how a friend was treated by the Navy after he was blown out of a HMMWV by an IED in Afghan. Diagonsed with TBI he was briefly treated in Germany, then sent right back to the 360 front. Even was offered a promotion if he would accept an extension in Afghan.

No real monitoring longterm appeared to be planned.

Posted by: Bill Keller | July 8, 2008 5:16 PM

Many of the South Vietnamese veterans like my late father who fought/flew the "entire" war then survived more than a decade in reeducation/ prison camps then immigrated to the U.S. without having mental counseling nor VA benefits have survived PTSD while a few have not. Is there any literature about former Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan or the French Foreign Legionnaires in Africa and Indochina? Is PTSD uniquely an American military affliction?

It's hard to distinguish between cause and effect of PTSD based on a soldier's mental/social status after discharge. In 1998 Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett, author of "Stolen Valor" blasted PTSD along with phony vets.
http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=6326927655094

Once in a while I still get flashbacks of the nights I spent as a kid in our home-made bunker in the 1970s while the VC rocketed Tan Son Nhut airbase. Those moments were much more scary than anything I experienced in the USMC as a medevac pilot.

Posted by: QuangXPham | July 8, 2008 6:13 PM

FG42,
I understand where you are coming from but things have changed since WWII and Vietnam. I think that the soldiers back then had the same problems but did not know how to articulate it. You here about it all the time especially of vietnam vets being "shell shocked". That's just another name for PTSS/PTSD. Not sure if soldier's today are more sensitive but they are definately more informed and apt to be more inquisitive due to technological advances.

Posted by: Tamika Carroll SG30C | July 9, 2008 10:43 AM

Thanks everyone for responding to my question. It was an honest question, and the responses were thoughtful, responsive and helpful. Tamika Carroll summed it up pretty well, I thought. To James M, who flamed me, please rest assured that I have the highest regard for the troops -- after all, I retired from the Marine Corps reserve, after serving from 1975 to 2000.

Posted by: fg42 | July 9, 2008 11:47 AM

James,

While i agree with EVERYTHING you have said... its not just Men that get it these days. I've had many close calls in baghdad... stray bullets come pouring in and you have you where to hide. Rockets and Mortars get launched in, and you have no idea where its going to land and no authority or mechanism to fight back. It goes both ways.

All others,
PTSD is NO joke and anyone that tries to downplay it as being just an excuse needs to come to terms with the reality of war. If you can not even ask question or try to understand the type of war-fare that is being fought today, then please...dont' run your mouth and belittle us.

FG42,
you dont have to leave the compound to suffer some traumatic experiences. The incoming siren alone creates fear. The whistle makes you uneasy. I hear sirens that aren't even there; and hearing someone close the door to a vehicle makes me jump. I've had dreams of pulling bodies of out mud from just the near death experiences from rockets and strays. It happens. You should seriously be ashamed of yourself.. or at least embarassed by now for making such a rash and inresponsible comment. But as a soldier STILL in Iraq... 12 months into a 15 month deployment... thats just my opinion

Posted by: armyelemental | July 11, 2008 6:56 AM

To armyelemental:

To go and return is in itself a change which can not be perceived by those who have not.

A good hour of sleep that comes from faith or denial of the deep fear of the day or months past and forward; The primal irritation, from the pressure wave passing through that self of your core; Living or bearing thru a place where the fundamentals are all that matter; or Recalling the good greeting from a face of the morning that by afternoon is roasted in the can of a burning vehicle ignited by a well place charge deposited by a "friend" during a meeting - These are not the understandings of those who live amid the comfort and the banality of the place left long ago called home.

Experinced differently, to them it is just a non understandable syndrome, a butt for scoff or gratuitous pity.

This is the long war.

Posted by: Bill Keller | July 11, 2008 11:55 AM

One other thing that may have helped the WW2 and Korean groups was the redeployment process. Unlike later groups who came and went by air, they redeployed by sea. Spending a week or so in a safe environment with only their buddies to talk to probably helped them decompress. Contrast this to the Viet Vets who flew directly back to the US and lacked the decompression opportunity.

They got to face their families and friends, who hadn't been there and didn't get it. The WW2 vets spent 1-2 weeks on ships with their buddies who had been there and did get it. AFAIK this (the talking, not the voyage) is now seen as one of the better ways to deal with combat stress and probably helps explain why PTSD was not seen as that big a problem for the WW2 and Korean vets compared with Viet Vets.

Posted by: Donald Clarke | July 14, 2008 3:28 PM

Donald Clarke....Thanks for the great insight. I think you're absolutely right. Here's another possible factor.... Years ago, when I was on a hike with my reserve unit, I talked with the Navy doctor who was accompanying us on the march. I asked him why it seemed that the Vietnam War produced a lot more "homeless vets" than WW2. This Navy doctor was older and had probably served in Korea. Anyway, he said that one factor was that the infantryman in WW2 was quite a bit older than the grunt in Vietnam. In WW2, the average infantryman might have been in his mid- to late 20's, maybe even the early 30's. And many of them had wives and children. So these older guys were somehow better able to cope with the reality of frontline combat. In contrast, Vietnam saw a lot of 20-year old grunts, taken right out of the schools or off the streets -- not even old enough to drink. The sudden immersion into the most unimaginable violence was more than many of these kids (and they were kids) could take.

Posted by: fg42 | July 14, 2008 6:07 PM

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