In the wake of the Vietnam War, the American conscience was able to absorb the brutality of combat on the psyche of the returning soldier mostly by compartmentalizing it: the problem was real, and could be dealt with, but as in the embrace of movies like the haunting Deer Hunter, it was slowly accepted that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was an affliction that affected some, but not all veterans of the war. This is clinically true, but I believe new revelations about what was once called “shell shock” in the wake of WWI not only made Americans more sympathetic to Vietnam veterans, but had a transformative effect on a generation. A movement in the mental health field was not only successful in getting PTSD included in its battery of clinical diagnoses, but a massive effort was launched to treat PTSD and to ensure that veterans of future wars returning with symptoms of rage, guilt, paranoia and fear weren’t left to their own devices.
But a medical movement cannot stretch a burst of innovation and dedication into long-term, institutional progress without the commitment of society at large. Compartmentalizing our sympathy and understanding for veterans of one war, does not necessarily translate into learning our lessons for the next one. As mental health and veterans’ advocates have been saying for years, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan face the same demons as their Vietnam predecessors and the data is bearing that out — one in five are returning home with PTSD according to the latest RAND study.
But it is stories like these, that indicate that the American public is due for another rude awakening. Joseph Dwyer was certainly not the only Iraq veteran to die at the hands of a beast his friends and family were not equipped to overwhelm. At age 31, it was pills and inhalants that swiped his last breath, and his mother and ex-wife, sounding like 1979, questioned why there wasn’t more support for the former medic who had been hailed years before as a battlefield hero in this now-famous photo :
From The Telegraph:
He was in and out of psychiatric care, once being committed after he started firing at imagined attackers inside his home, leading to a three-hour police siege. He had also crashed his car several times after swerving to avoid imagined roadside bombs.
Mr Dwyer’s family said he had also been struggling with depression and sleeplessness, symptoms associated with PTSD. He would spend nights hiding in a wardrobe clutching a knife, and started inhaling from aerosols to help him sleep.
His mother said the army could have done more to help him.
“He loved the picture, don’t get me wrong. He just couldn’t get over the war,” said Maureen Dwyer.
“He just wasn’t Joseph. Joseph never came home. Talking to him, he knew he was going to die.”
His wife, Matina, said: “He was just never the same when he came back, because of all the things he saw.
“He tried to seek treatment, but it didn’t work.”
She said she hoped that her husband’s death would bring more attention to PTSD issues.