Private Dwyer's Last Breath

The first hero of the war on terror, he survived 92 days of the most intense fighting in Iraq only to die five years later in North Carolina. What killed him? A can of Dust-Off

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.

In January 2004, six months after leaving Iraq behind, Dwyer started having flashbacks. They woke him from sleep in a cold sweat. Even in the light of day his mind returned to the battlefields—the smoky stench of spent ammo, the rattle of the radio, the sight of bloated bodies. For a while he was nothing more than an unfortunate statistic, one of the thousands of Iraq-war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study, 18.5 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or major depression and 19.5 percent report a "probable traumatic brain injury," which can lead to other mental-health issues. That amounts to more than 300,000 vets already—before the surge returns from Iraq. And a great many of those soldiers have gotten inadequate treatment or no treatment at all. "We were trained in how to deal with a sucking chest wound," says Adam Beard, a former cavalry captain. "But we weren't trained for how to spot a mental-health problem. We didn't really talk about it."

A year after his return, Dwyer thought he'd found some peace. Never particularly religious, he happened on a prayer breakfast at the base and was struck by a Bible passage, 2 Corinthians 5:17: "If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new." Raised Roman Catholic, Dwyer started attending a Southern Baptist church with his wife, Matina, taking the verse's message to heart. He was ready to be saved. On a Sunday morning in December 2004, he followed his pastor into a shallow wading pool, where the pastor dipped him backward until the water ran over Dwyer's head. He cried, praying for the promised cleansing of his soul.

He was granted no such miracle. The flashbacks turned darker and came more frequently, and with them the doubts. Not even God can save me. Dwyer stopped going to church and was consumed by thoughts of his certain damnation. Nothing made the anguish go away—not time, or the therapist he saw every six weeks, or the antidepressants he'd started taking. So he got something that did. One afternoon, when Matina was at work, he reached for a can of Dust-Off.

He put the nozzle to his mouth. He push the trigger and inhaled deeply.As he unleashed a chilly stream of vapor, a pressurized pffffffffft, the compressed air—used to clean computer keyboards—filled his lungs, limiting the oxygen to his brain. And suddenly Dwyer wasn't at war anymore. He felt giddy and light-headed . . . at peace. He knew huffing was dangerous: Within seconds of even the first hit, Dust-Off can cause cardiac arrest. Which is why, at first, the soldier kept his habit to a minimum. One can lasted days, letting him sleep and function normally. Soon, though, he needed 10 cans a day, chasing the 20-minute high with hit after hit, often late into the night.

Matina came home after work one afternoon to find a strange hissing sound coming from the computer room. When she went to check it out, Dwyer greeted her with wild eyes. When she returned a short while later, he had a can of Dust-Off hidden behind his back. Matina was baffled. She'd occasionally seen Dwyer drunk, but she couldn't believe he'd try something as depraved as huffing. "What would possess you to even think about doing that?" she asked.

"Nothing else works," he said. "This makes the flashbacks stop. I need it."

Huffing, it turns out, is this war's easy escape. On most bases in Iraq, it's nearly impossible to find booze or drugs. But there's an endless supply of Dust-Off in the desert, where the godforsaken sand is everywhere. It gets into rifles and computer keyboards and GPS devices the way a war gets into a G.I.'s head, triggering malfunctions. Dust-Off expunges the grit.

"It's a thing that people do when they're bored," says one Iraq vet, who recalls his buddies buying Dust-Off from the base supply store in shifts so they wouldn't draw attention to themselves. At night in the barracks, they gleefully traded hits off the canisters, giggling, while the rumbles of the war faded into the distance.

For troubled soldiers, Dust-Off can be a quick solace, getting them "out of Iraq for two minutes," as one officer told Stars and Stripes in 2007, when he banned the substance from barracks after a huffing soldier went into convulsions. "These guys are using anything that will help them avoid dealing with the traumatic events they experienced," says Keith Armstrong, a therapist at the San Francisco Department of VA Medical Center. "It's not really surprising that they're huffing."

Chief medical examiner Craig Mallak of the Armed Forces Medical Examiners System says 39 active-duty soldiers and marines have died from inhalant abuse since the war started, including a depressive 22-year-old officer who was found in his trailer with a half-empty can of Dust-Off under him. But it's hard to gauge the full sweep of the problem. "Since most people huff alone, we don't know how many soldiers are doing it," Mallak says. "We only see them when they die." A year ago, Mallak persuaded the Army and the Air Force to purchase only Dust-Off canisters laced with horrid-tasting bitterants. Posters and TV spots now warn soldiers about huffing's perils. As of early June, just one active-duty soldier had died from the practice this year, compared with seven in all of 2008.

Whatever highs Dust-Off delivered to Dwyer, they were short-lived. Despite Matina's pleas, he insisted on buying a handgun to add to the loaded pistol and two rifles he kept in their small apartment. He never said exactly what he feared, just that the war had somehow followed him home. "I have to protect myself," he told Matina. "I did things to save myself over there. Now they're coming to get me."

On the evening of October 6, 2005, Dwyer was home alone in the El Paso apartment, cleaning his 9mm. He had been sitting with Matina and a fellow soldier earlier, but both felt compelled to leave because of his continual huffing. The soldier was so troubled by what he saw that he phoned the base for help. Two first sergeants drove to the apartment, and Dwyer greeted them at the door. When one tried to enter, Dwyer got spooked. He locked the dead bolt and fired a few warning shots through the door, then aimed at the ceiling, where he heard insurgents clamoring on the roof. He called Matina on her cell phone. "I'm sorry I have to do this to you," he said. Then he fired his gun again.

"Joseph! Joseph!" Matina screamed, convinced her husband had killed himself.

A few minutes later, he came back on the line. "They're here!" he shouted. "They're surrounding me! They're on the roof!"

By the time the El Paso police arrived, Dwyer was hunkered down, holding a mirror out the window to track the insurgents. On the phone with the swat team, he tried to order an air strike while firing up to 300 rounds inside his living room. After three hours, the police finally talked him out of the apartment. Embarrassed, Dwyer acknowledged what was glaringly obvious: He was sick. He spent 45 days in the psychiatric ward at the Fort Bliss medical center. Afterward, he was honorably discharged from the Army, at the rank of specialist, and in March 2006 he moved with Matina to Pinehurst, North Carolina.

After his standoff with the police, Dwyer promised Matina he was done with huffing. He was ready to get help. He had a good reason: In May, his daughter, Meagan, was born. But after several months of therapy at the VA clinic in North Carolina, the new father was no better. In fact, he'd gotten worse—a development he blamed, in part, on being assigned a new therapist every couple of months. When he closed his eyes, he witnessed unspeakable things happening to Meagan in Iraq, horrors he refused to share with Matina.

At his wife's insistence, he had left his guns in Texas. But soon after Meagan's first birthday, Dwyer purchased a semi-automatic rifle. He also picked up a can of Dust-Off; soon he was snorting cocaine as well. When Matina realized he'd relapsed, she took Meagan, and the gun, and left for her parents' house. A few days later, Dwyer called her, out of his head. "I'm coming up there to get my gun," he told her. "And one of us is going to die." Once he'd regained his faculties, he had no recollection of the phone call. "It almost killed him," Matina recalls. In tears, he apologized and promised again to get help.

But the VA medical center in Durham was full, and the Army couldn't help because he'd been discharged. Even before the war, the VA's health system—the biggest in the country—had been overwhelmed. With staggering numbers of new veterans since 2003, it was now under constant siege. To meet the demand, President Obama plans to increase funding by $25 billion over the next five years, opening the door to some 500,000 more vets. But five years is a long time to wait for change—especially when this war's soldiers have been coming home for six.

Dwyer finally found what he needed at a VA-run substance-abuse program on Long Island, where he spent eight months with soldiers like him. He devoted hours every day to therapy, willingly confronting, for the first time, what he'd seen and done in Iraq. On the phone with Matina, he finally confessed to the thing he could not get past, the one moment of the war that forever changed him. Not the heroic moment. Something else. Near the end of his tour, his unit was assigned to search for Saddam and his criminal cohorts. On a dark night during a raid, Dwyer burst into a house, kicked open a door, and saw someone rush toward him. He fired his gun. Then he looked to see who he'd killed: an unarmed woman. In front of her young child. "I killed a lady, a mother," he told Matina. "I don't understand how I could become someone who would do that, just . . . kill . . . like an animal. How can God forgive that? How?"

He returned home on March 1, 2008. Six days later, Matina found him in the computer room, huffing. She turned around, picked up Meagan, and walked out. Alone, Dwyer spiraled. He had bored a hole through a closet wall to make a bunker, and he took to hiding in it with a gun when he felt threatened. Every morning, he called a taxi to drive him to a computer store, where he bought a supply of Dust-Off. On the night of June 28, he called a taxi to take him to the hospital. When the driver arrived at his house, Dwyer shouted that he couldn't get up. The police arrived a few minutes later and broke down the door. They found him on the floor, lying in his own feces, surrounded by empty cans of Dust-Off. "Help me, please," Dwyer groaned. "I'm dying. . . . I can't breathe." As the paramedics rolled him to the ambulance, he took his last breath. Five years after surviving war, Dwyer had huffed himself to death.

The famous soldier from those first heroic days of the war was suddenly news again. On the website, hundreds of strangers wrote tributes to him, some with prayers—pleas—for his death to resonate, to keep others from suffering as he did. Mt. Sinai, Dwyer's Long Island hometown, named a street after him; a family friend formed a nonprofit in his name to raise money for disabled vets. Dwyer was no longer just one American soldier suffering from PTSD; he was, again, a symbol—but this time, a symbol of how we treat our heroes. "There should have been more help here for Joseph," Matina says. "He was all alone and felt like nothing could help him, like nothing had worked. He never really came home at all."

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