Another American Tragedy
In a monstrous twist of irony, Joseph Dwyer, once a recruiting poster and Iraq war icon of American compassion, died of an inhalant overdose on June 29th, practically abandoned by a dispassionate military whom he’d served so well.
Actually, there are several monstrous twists of ironies. For a man whom Army Times photographer Warren Zinn had singled out for attention in the iconic picture above and whom the Army, desperate for early heroes to catapult the propaganda “proving” the humanistic impetus behind the invasion, never considered himself a hero. To Dwyer, he was simply one of several other guys just doing his job.
Another irony is that Dwyer didn’t even belong in Iraq. He’d voluntarily gone so a single mother of two wouldn’t be separated from her children or disobey deployment orders. That alone qualifies him for hero status.
Yet heroes such as Dwyer, Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch are branded heroes for all the wrong reasons by a Rumsfeld-era Pentagon that cynically regarded said heroes as mere pawns or cogs in a massive game of public relations that is meant to shore up and maintain support for a war regardless of how illegal or unjustified it may be. That way, to criticize the war is to criticize the hero. The two are inextricably entwined.
Forget the fact that Pat Tillman, who was surely killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, criticized the war in Iraq as “so fucking illegal.” Forget the fact that Jessica Lynch was unconscious when she was captured, her gun jammed, and apparently well-cared for at the Iraqi hospital from which she was “liberated”, cameras present and a tiny American flag slipped into her hand at the perfect moment.
And forget the fact that Joseph Dwyer, while actually assuming a heroic undertaking in evacuating wounded children from a battlefield, never considered himself a hero and who, as he’d tried reminding us, was just one of several guys doing the same job.
Barring posthumous worth, as in the case of Tillman, the Walter Reed scandal alone proved how shabbily we treat those who have sacrificed time away from their families, body parts and even more once their usefulness is at an end. John F. Kennedy once said that you can judge the greatness of a nation by how it treats its most underprivileged citizens. But as an adjunct to that axiom, it can also be said that the moral greatness and authority of a nation is delineated by how well it treats its wounded heroes. Since at least the Civil War, we have failed miserably, still are and likely always will.
Dwyer died on June 29th after he’d overdosed on refrigerator inhalants to keep at arm's length the demons that he’d brought back with him from Iraq. He barricaded himself and shot at imaginary enemies, hid under beds when he heard fireworks, and saw in the desert landscape of El Paso, Texas and the dark-skinned Hispanic residents another Iraq.
Anyone old enough to recall the shell-shocked veterans coming back from Vietnam and presenting identical symptoms will see something disturbingly familiar in Dwyer’s post-war life and the lives of others. Despite a cyclical history of violence, substance abuse and disturbing behavior since his redeployment, the Army never separated him from his weapons and whatever help he finally got from the VA consisted of a large handful of pills and little else, what Dwyer’s father called “a pharmaceutical lobotomy.” While the local constabulary insisted he was the military’s problem, the military was pointing their own finger at the civilian authorities.
When Dwyer returned from Iraq, he declined saying “Yes” when asked if he presented symptoms of Post Delayed Stress Disorder because he held out hope of becoming a police officer like his father and three of his brothers. It makes one shudder to consider a police officer with problems like Dwyer’s being given another gun and unprecedented powers over our civilian population.
Yet after the brass bands at the homecomings pack up their instruments and the red, white and blue bunting gets taken down, after the worshipful crowd goes home, the heroes are forgotten and essentially left alone to patch up their often tattered lives. Politicians and the top brass at the Pentagon immediately forget their names while they cynically squint at the war’s hellish, pockmarked landscape looking for other heroes to replace them.
We’re used to not hearing the names of these dead and living casualties to pass the lips of George W. Bush. What would impress me, what would help convince this cynical old veteran that we are indeed being offered change that we deserve, is for someone like John McCain and Barack Obama to mention people like Joseph Dwyer while they’re overseas and mouthing pious platitudes of gratitude to our heroes and heroes-in-waiting.
A nine year-old child, one of the children of the mother whose place Dwyer had taken, shows Dwyer's picture to his friends, reminding them of how he used to put his toys together, a lesson in respect and reverence that's yet to be learned by those far older and wiser while occupying and seeking power.