Did Famous Photo Kill a Soldier?

By: Greg Mitchell

“My shot made Joseph Dwyer famous. Did it also help lead to his death?” So began an article in The Washington Post on Sunday by Warren Zinn.

He is referring to a tragedy I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago. A former Army medic made famous by a photograph that showed him carrying an injured Iraqi boy during the first week of the war had died of an apparent overdose. Joseph Patrick Dwyer died at a hospital in Pinehurst, N.C., after battling PTSD. He was 31.

The photograph, taken by Zinn in March 2003, showed Dwyer running to a makeshift military hospital while cradling the boy. The photo appeared in newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts worldwide, making Dwyer a symbol of heroism. But he tried to deflect praise back to his entire unit.

His mother said the military could have done more to help with post-traumatic stress. “He just couldn’t get over the war,” Maureen Dwyer said. “He just couldn’t do it. Just wasn’t Joseph. Joseph never came home.”

His wife, Matina, said: “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.” She told a reporter that she hoped that her husband?s death would bring more attention to PTSD issues.

Now Zinn, who is presently studying law at the University of Miami, writes about hearing of Dwyer’s death: “I’d read news reports that he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought he was being hunted by Iraqi killers. He’d been in and out of treatment. He couldn’t, his mother told the media, ‘get over the war.’

“But as I stared at his image on my wall, I couldn’t dodge the question: Did this photo have anything to do with his death? News reports said he hated the celebrity that came with the picture. How much, I wondered, did that moment — just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq — contribute to the burdens he’d brought home with him? If I’d never taken his picture, would he have ended up as he did? Would he still have been a casualty of war?”

After describing the genesis of the picture and aftermath, Zinn recalls: “The last message Joseph sent me was on Dec. 1, 2004. ‘When I first got back I didn’t really want to talk about being over there to anyone,’ he wrote. ‘Now looking back on it, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I hope you feel the same about what you have done. I truly believe you played an important role in this war. You told everyone’s story.”

“Even as I transcribe that e-mail, it gives me pause. What happened to him after he wrote that? And did I do what he said?”

Zinn concludes: “I don’t know that the photograph of Joseph was the best one I ever took, or my favorite, but I think it represented something important. At the time, it represented hope. Hope that what we were doing as a nation in Iraq was the right thing. Hope that our soldiers were helping people. Hope that soldiers such as Joseph cared more about human life than anything else.

“But now when I look at the picture, it doesn’t feel hopeful. It makes me realize that so many soldiers are physically torn and in such mental anguish that for some of them, hope has turned to hopelessness. That, I have to believe, is what happened to Joseph Dwyer, who was haunted by the ghosts of what he’d seen in Iraq, by fears he had lived with for too long. He could never leave the battlefield behind.

“He was memorialized in that image trying to preserve life. But he could no longer preserve his own.”

The full piece is up at:


Greg Mitchell’s new book includes several chapters on iraq veterans, PTSD and suicides. It is titled “So Wrong for So Long.”

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