It was only a moment in what would become the long war. The invasion of Iraq was barely a week old, and Private First Class Joseph Dwyer's squadron had beaten back a 24-hour barrage of attacks from Saddam's army. The fighting had just ended on March 25, 2003, when a hysterical cry filled the relative quiet. An Iraqi man ran toward the Americans carrying a half-naked boy bleeding from an ugly gash in his leg. Dwyer, a 26-year-old medic on his first tour of his first war, saw the terror on the kid's face. He knew there could be Iraqi soldiers ready to open fire. Still, he dashed out to meet the man, cradled the boy to his barrel chest, and gently carried him to safety.
A moment like so many others. But an Army Times photographer captured this one: Dwyer rushing back, exuding concern and purpose and, yes, heroism. Some 12 hours later, the picture was on Nightline, on the front pages of newspapers around the country, everywhere from Dwyer's hometown on New York's Long Island to the base where he trained in El Paso, Texas, to Robbins, North Carolina, where his new wife awaited his return. It became the first iconic image of the conflict. Behold the U.S. soldier carrying an injured boy. Dwyer became a symbol of the noble, necessary war waged by "liberators." The next day, when he learned of his fame, in the field once again, he laughed at the absurdity. "I was just one of a group of guys," he told the Military Times. "I wasn't standing out more than anyone else."
Private Dwyer never intended to be a front-page story when he enlisted, a few days after September 11, 2001. He was just another patriotic American. He'd almost lost a brother in the attacks on the Towers. And he'd vowed to his family that "nothing like this is ever going to happen to my country again." In Iraq, Dwyer did more than his part. When the U.S. invasion started, he was attached to the Third Squadron of the Seventh Cavalry, at the "tip of the tip of the spear" crossing into Iraq. The Cav was deep in the shit most every day. As the 500-vehicle convoy made its way from Kuwait to Baghdad, Dwyer and his fellow soldiers left a trail of Iraqi corpses along the dusty road. Ninety-two days after arriving in country, he started for home. He didn't feel like a hero. He felt like a murderer, alone and afraid, left to cope in the only way he could, with the aid of this war's drug of choice. Again he would become a reluctant symbol.
A hot day, bright and dusty, with the echo of bombs in the distance and the enemy everywhere but nowhere to be seen. Dwyer drove down a nearly empty street. A cardboard box caught his eye. He'd seen this before, an innocuous-seeming carton that turned out to be a bomb. He swerved into a nearby road sign, then caught his breath and looked around. There was no bomb, no Iraqi insurgents, no one aiming a machine gun at him. He wasn't in Baghdad. He was back in El Paso, a desert town with a military base, where he was again stationed.