Monday, July 21, 2008

ANNALS OF PTSD: One More Casualty

Joseph Dwyer was a hero who became famous for carrying a wounded child toward help, an act of courage documented in one of the most famous photographs to emerge from the Iraq War.

A medic from Long Island whose brothers were cops, he joined up after 9/11. He cared for the wounded on the battlefield as the army fought their way from the Euphrates to Baghdad. When medics are under fire, they don't shoot back. They're too busy putting pressure bandages on sucking chest wounds, or tying tourniquets on the remains of a limb, or strapping their wounded friends onto stretchers. He was decorated for his courage with a Combat Medical Badge for service under fire.

He came home safely from Iraq, but he couldn't get the war out of his head. The VA gave him medicine and inpatient treatment, but they weren't enough.

Imagine the endless nightmare of war superimposed on your normal life -- ordinary sounds threaten death, roadside litter becomes an improvised bomb. Imagine the heart-pounding terror every time someone knocks on your door. He lived in that hell for five years. Finally he died there.

Technically, the death was from a drug overdose. But when you're frightened sick all the time, unrelentingly, any drug that will give you surcease can be an unbearable temptation.

I hope he has found peace and rest now in a place without gunfire. I pray that his wife and daughter, his friends, his family, will all find consolation. But for those who live with this pain, there is very little consolation.

PTSD destroys lives, and it can spread to your partners and into the next generation. My father was a medic in the Korean War. I'm sure that some of what he did to me, some of the living nightmares i still fight, came from the battlefields of Korea.

In "Let the People Speak," Stephen Fry interviewed various (possibly fictional) members of the British public about the first Gulf War, which was then beginning:
"Let's get one thing straight," said a doctor from Long Melford. "Soldiers are made from flesh and bone and tissue that is, as Wilfred Owen said, 'so dear achieved.' It has taken them from 17 to 30 years to grow into what they are. In seconds it can be a tangle of blood and smashed material that can never be put right again."

. . . "Are you in the business of comforting the enemy?"

"No, I'm in the business of repairing flesh. Just be sure. For God's sake be sure."

Minds can be smashed beyond all repairing, too. It took 26 years to make Joseph Dwyer into the kind of man who would rescue a wounded child under fire.

It took 91 days on the battlefield to destroy him.

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