Monday, July 7, 2008

The Tragedy of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Warrior Ethos

After I returned from Iraq in late 2004, I was patrolling the streets as a cop in Central Florida. One afternoon, along with other officers, I was dispatched to a shooting. As we arrived at the apartment complex, a man met us and said his room-mate had shot himself.

Not exactly sure what awaited us, another officer and I entered the apartment – handguns at the ready – to search the rooms one-by-one. As we reached one bedroom door, there was a note taped above the door handle. With the other officer covering me, I pushed open the door.

The young man was lying on his back in bed and blood was splattered across the wall behind his head. One hand was on his chest, but the other was out to his side. Next to that hand was a forty-five automatic handgun. The bullet had entered below his chin and traveled through his head until it exited the top of his skull.

Not knowing yet whether we were dealing with a homicide or a suicide, we secured the scene and waited for the detectives to arrive. While we waited, I made a quick visual survey of the apartment and what I found made my heart begin to tighten with sadness. The note on the door was a suicide note from the ex-soldier and that note was also displayed on the computer screen in the man’s room. He was only 24 years old.

On the bedroom dresser were several souvenirs from Iraq: old Iraqi money with pictures of Saddam Hussein, photographs of his fellow soldiers in the desert, his Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal and other special things that only an American G.I. would bring home. On the fireplace mantle in the living room, the young veteran’s helmet sat quietly in its desert-camouflage cover.

I have experienced many scenes of death as a police officer, from natural ones to gruesome homicides. Some of these people died because it was simply their time, such as the elderly woman who died at her kitchen table as she clutched her asthma medication.

Suicides are among the saddest deaths because the victims managed to fool their co-workers, their friends, the professional counselors and even their families. Many who knew them saw the sadness, the frustration or the despair, but those closest to them never really believed these seemingly-strong family members or acquaintances could really take their own lives.

As a war veteran who has seen his share of death and who has lost friends and comrades to whatever enemy we faced at the time, I am saddened that fellow soldiers could hurt themselves without at least trying to talk to one of us. Among all people, we are the ones who most understand the reasons for their pain. They are our comrades and they are part of us. Why won’t they let us help them?

This young man was only 24, but he had so much he could have given the world. He experienced the very worst of mankind, but he also saw that even good can come from the tragedy of war – the gift of liberty to those who were oppressed and hope for the pursuit of happiness among those who knew so little joy.

Had he found the courage to live, he could have taught others what he learned at war and one day his own children would have witnessed the depth of his experience. His act of pure selfishness robbed his family of his presence, but the world will never learn the lessons that are now buried forever in the depths of his anguished soul.

The following article appeared in the El Paso Times today and it tells the story of another young veteran who gave much to the world, but whose life ended because of post-traumatic stress disorder that led to a drug overdose.

A heroic photo of Specialist Joseph Dwyer appears above and our sympathies go out to his family:

* * * *

Overdose kills ex-Fort Bliss soldier

By Stephanie Sanchez / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 07/07/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

Former Fort Bliss Army Spc. Joseph Dwyer, whose photograph depicting him carrying a wounded boy to safety during the first days of the ground war in Iraq became a symbol of the U.S. Army, died late last month of an overdose at home in North Carolina, Army officials and police said Sunday.

Officials with the Pinehurst Police Department in North Carolina said no one would be available to talk about the ex-soldier's death until today, but Jean Offutt, a Fort Bliss spokesperson, said Fort Bliss officials were aware of the former soldier's death. The Army Times reported the day Dwyer died that he had apparently taken pills and inhaled the fumes from an aerosol can.

"He was certainly a hero. ... He did have some difficulty dealing with it," Offutt said. She added that Dwyer was treated at Beaumont Army Medical Center. "It is certainly a tragedy."

In 2003, Dwyer returned to Fort Bliss after serving four months in Iraq with the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. A native of Mount Sinai, N.Y., he had joined the Army as a medic two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to El Paso Times archives.

During his tour in Iraq, an Army Times photographer captured Dwyer as he helped a young boy to safety after his family was caught in the crossfire of a battle near Faysaliyah, Iraq. The photo ran in newspapers nationwide, including the El Paso Times.

In October 2005, Dwyer's friends told the El Paso Times he had returned from the war a different person. At first he was a religious man, but then problems including drinking, sniffing inhalants and nightmares started occurring, his friends said. Dwyer suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, they said.

Dwyer was involved an incident in early 2005 in which he crashed his car and said he saw a box he thought was a bomb in the middle of the street, his friends told the El Paso Times. In October 2005, he was arrested for shooting up his East El Paso apartment in which the police SWAT team negotiated with him for more than three hours. No one was hurt.

Offutt said Dwyer's death should make people aware of PTSD symptoms. Details of Dwyer's mental-health history and treatment at Beaumont Army Medical Center were not available Sunday.

"He served his country," Offutt said. "It is unfortunate that these things sometimes happen to soldiers when they return. Our thoughts are with his family, spouse and children."

Valerie Miller Topp, a friend of Dwyer's, said she met him when Dwyer's wife, Matina, was pregnant with their daughter in 2005.

"When I first met him he was heavily medicated. ... He didn't really talk much," she said. "As the pregnancy progressed he began to open up and talk more. They were just a really nice couple."

Miller Topp said Dwyer said the couple moved to North Carolina from El Paso in 2006.

"He (Dwyer) said, 'I just want to go fishing. I don't want anything to do with violence, guns or war. I just want to meet my daughter and go fishing,'" she said.

Stephanie Sanchez may reached at; 546-6137.

* * * *

I would ask that war veterans of any era never give up, never quit and that they seek help to deal with the memories that seem too painful to endure.

Remember my fellow veterans, when you wore that uniform you were one of the finest citizens and warriors of your generation. You were taught to be strong in the face of adversity, to endure any hardship and to solve whatever problem rose to face you.

You may no longer serve in the active military, but the essence of the warrior is still within you. Never forget your warrior training, your mental strength, that steely resolve and the natural courage that led you to fight alongside your comrades, your buddies and those who were the best friends you will ever have.

You would never quit on your fellow soldiers in combat; do not quit on yourself now. If you need help, please ask for it, but giving up must never be an option...

Charles M. Grist


  1. Rest in peace, Doc, you've earned it.

  2. God Speed. Thanks for your personal comments on this tragedy, I linked your article on my blog.

    Thank you for YOUR service.

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