The Demons are Still Legion (The Joseph Dwyer Story)

Several weeks ago, I blogged about “the girl in the picture” from the Vietnam War, and the improbable story of how she’s overcome her hatred with a powerful and deep forgiveness.

Days after I posted the blog, I saw a news item about Joseph Dwyer, and I’ve been haunted by his story ever since. Like Kim Phuc, Joseph Dywer is the subject of a picture that many simply refer to as “the picture.” Like Kim Phuc, it’s become a seminal picture for people during a time of war.

But unlike the arc of Kim Phuc’s story, Army Medic Joseph Dwyer’s story finds him home from the war unable to shake his demons, unable to live with being called a “hero,” and ultimately unable to cope with life itself.

Joseph Dwyer was like so many young men and women who signed up for military service in the wake of September 11th. He came from a long line of police officers, including a brother who missed being at Ground Zero simply because he missed a morning train that day.

Dwyer reasurred his family he wouldn’t see heavy action But that was far from the truth. The 3rd Infantry Division was one of the forward units in the initial push into Bagdad. As one officer described it, they were “the tip of the spear” of the initial US attack.

On the day “the picture” was taken, the Associated Press describes the scene this way:

“During the push into Baghdad, Dwyer’s unit came under heavy fire. An airstrike called in to suppress ambush fire rocked the convoy.
As the sun rose along the Euphrates River on March 25, 2003, Army Times photographer Warren Zinn watched as a man ran toward the soldiers carrying a white flag and his injured 4-year-old son. Zinn clicked away as Dwyer darted out to meet the man, then returned, cradling the boy in his arms.
The photo — of a half-naked boy, a kaffiyeh scarf tied around his shrapnel-injured leg and his mouth set in a grimace of pain, and of a bespectacled Dwyer dressed in full battle gear, his M-16 rifle dangling by his side — appeared on front pages and magazine covers around the world.”
(all quotes in this blog are from this story)


(Warren Zinn: The Army Times)

I remember the photo too. And I remember how, even at the time, it struck me as something of a mirror opposite of Kim Phuc’s scene of horror. Yes, here was a picture of another naked civilian child. Only this time instead of portraying a horror at the hands of our soldiers, it symbolized a kinder, gentler, Army helping to heal and to save.

Dwyer was hailed as a hero. The Army gave him the “Combat Medical Badge for service under enemy fire.” John Walsh –of America’s Most Wanted fame– gave him the “Hometown Hero” award.

But Dwyer was embarrassed by the praise. Given the horrors of war and the capricious nature of his photo being singled out, he found it hard to cope. After a 91-day tour in Iraq, and upon his return home, coping got even tougher.

Friends noticed the difference almost immediately. He lost sixty-five pounds. When eating out, he insisted on sitting with his back to the wall, so nobody could sneak up on him. Everything about his new hometown –El Paso, Texas– reminded him of Iraq…from the desert landscapes to the dark skin of local Latinos.

His odd behavior got more and more troubling:

“One day, he swerved to avoid what he thought was a roadside bomb and crashed into a convenience store sign. He began answering his apartment door with a pistol in his hand and would call friends from his car in the middle of the night, babbling and disoriented from sniffing inhalants.”

His wife told others that he was “seeing imaginary Iraqis all around him.”

It got worse…

“On Oct. 6, 2005, when superiors went to the couple’s off-base apartment to persuade Dwyer to return to the hospital, Dwyer barricaded himself in. Imagining Iraqis swarming up the sides and across the roof, he fired his pistol through the door, windows and ceiling.

After a three-hour standoff, Dwyer’s eldest brother, Brian, also a police officer, managed to talk him down over the phone. Dwyer was admitted for psychiatric treatment.”

Eventually, his wife and child left him. That seemed to unhinge his final hold on reality:

“Without his wife and daughter to anchor him, Dwyer’s grip on reality loosened further. He reverted to Iraq time, sleeping during the day and “patrolling” all night. Unable to possess a handgun, he placed knives around the house for protection.”
In those last months, Dwyer opened up a little to his parents.

What bothered him most, he said, was the sheer volume of the gunfire. He talked about the grisly wounds he’d treated and dwelled on the people he was unable to save. His nasal membranes seemed indelibly stained with the scents of the battlefield — the sickeningly sweet odor of rotting flesh and the metallic smell of blood.”

Joseph Dwyer died on June 28th of this year, in what can only be described as a tragic end to a hero’s tale:

“Officers had been to the white ranch house at 560 W. Longleaf many times before over the past year to respond to a “barricade situation.” Each had ended uneventfully, with Joseph Dwyer coming out or telling police in a calm voice through the window that he was OK.”

But this time was different.

“The Iraq War veteran had called a taxi service to take him to the emergency room. But when the driver arrived, Dwyer shouted that he was too weak to get up and open the door.

The officers asked Dwyer for permission to kick it in.

“Go ahead!” he yelled.

They found Dwyer lying on his back, his clothes soiled with urine and feces. Scattered on the floor around him were dozens of spent cans of Dust-Off, a refrigerant-based aerosol normally used to clean electrical equipment.

Dwyer told police Lt. Mike Wilson he’d been “huffing” the aerosol.

“Help me, please!” the former Army medic begged Wilson. “I’m dying. Help me. I can’t breathe.”

Unable to stand or even sit up, Dwyer was hoisted onto a stretcher. As paramedics prepared to load him into an ambulance, an officer noticed Dwyer’s eyes had glassed over and were fixed.

A half hour later, he was dead.”

Police treated his death as an accidental overdose. But of course, as the above story reveals, it’s something far more tragic.

In the blog about Kim Phuc I noted that the current war has produced the next generation of young children filled with anger and hate toward America.

But it’s producing something else too. It’s also producing the next generation of profoundly wounded veterans, unable to cope with return to the “normal world,” and scarred in ways that don’t initially show to the naked eye.

The myth of the “success” of this was has been, in part, been that there are comparatively few casualties. The reality is that advances in military health care mean thousands of soldiers who would have died, say, during Vietnam, are now saved from death. They are dismembered. They are disabled. But they are alive. And they return to a nation that mostly forgets about them, and doesn’t like to think about the cost they have born.

Then there’s the special case of those who stitch up all these newly wounded, in the first few minutes on the battlefield: medics like Joseph Dwyer. God knows what horrors they have seen. Even the best of them surely have nightmares they find hard to share with anyone.

In the Bible, Jesus comes upon a man possessed by evil spirits, just outside a town called Gerasenes. The man is described in great detail, as having lived outside of normal society for many years. He lives in a graveyard and wanders about totally naked.

Jesus asks the man’s demon what its name is, and the demon answers “Legion.” The text explains that this is because so many demons have entered him.

It’s telling to remember that one of the best known popular uses of the word “legion” was to describe a regiment of the infamous Roman Army.

And that reminds me that there is something more than a little crazy about war….even the most just of wars.

As Sam Keen noted in his powerful book, “Faces of the Enemy” the steps toward war always include a period of dehumanizing those who are different, so we can overcome the psychological prohibition against killing that resides deep inside each of us. War involves an entire country being propagandized to the belief that an “enemy” is subhuman and deserves death.

War, Keen argues, could never be fought unless a nation first goes through this exercise in enemy-making.

Knowing this truth (as we should), to expect that young men and women can go to far off places, dehumanize an entire population, kill them with no side-effects, and then re-enter polite society with few problems defies all credulity.

We send young men and women off to war –off to join the “legion” –and we should not pretend to be shocked that, upon their return, some of the demons take up permanent residence inside their souls. Like the Gerasenes man, they feel as if they live in a permanent graveyard. Like the Gerasenes man, they are unable to cope in regular society. And we look at them with a combination of pity and fear.

The Good News of the Bible story, of course, is that there is such a thing as miraculous healing. And whether that specific demon was mental illness or something more, I do believe healing is possible.

But, as the Bible story notes, even the best of healing is messy and still involves pain. In that story, the demons rush out of the man, rush into a herd of pigs, who then rush over the edge of a cliff.

Healing happens. But it’s a painful process, at least for the pigs. There is collateral damage, even in this Biblical healing.

How much more collateral damage will we see, as our veterans return home? How many “legion” of troops –struggling just as mightily as Joseph Dwyer struggled– will we watch from afar with a mixture of fear and trepidation?

Get ready. For they’re coming home now. They’re already home. They will be legion. And the pain of their healing, if and when it happens, will be an ongoing human cost of this unnecessary war.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
But, sometimes, pictures can lie too.
Or, sometimes, things just change.

How stunning the change for Kim Phuc; that she has overcome such inner and outer pain during the past thirty years.

How tragic the change for Joseph Dwyer; that the “hero” the world acclaimed couldn’t overcome his own inner demons.

When Joseph’s mother first saw “the picture” of him, she had a premonition.

“I just didn’t think he was going to come home,” she said.

“And he never did.”

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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