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A medic's fate in 1/250th of a second

Did my photo lead to his death? I was only 25 when I made this photo in March 2003 of Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, 26, a medic running with a wounded a young Iraqi boy. Dwyer never recovered from the war and died last month of a substance overdose. The photo made him famous. How much, I wondered, did that moment — just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq — contribute to the burdens he’d brought home with him?  see warren zinn’s essay, page 5P

AP Photo/Warren Zinn, The Army Times Co.

Did my photo lead to his death? I was only 25 when I made this photo in March 2003 of Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, 26, a medic running with a wounded a young Iraqi boy. Dwyer never recovered from the war and died last month of a substance overdose. The photo made him famous. How much, I wondered, did that moment — just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq — contribute to the burdens he’d brought home with him?  see warren zinn’s essay, page 5P

The e-mail was a punch in the gut: "The soldier you made famous killed himself last Saturday — thought you should know."

I thought I'd put photojournalism and war behind me 41/2 years ago when I traded in the dusty battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan for law school in Miami. But those words reminded me that you never truly leave the battlefield behind.

I knew at once what the message meant: Joseph Dwyer was dead. I drove home in a daze and walked into my apartment. And there was Joseph, on the wall, looking at me.

Dwyer was the subject of a highly publicized photograph I'd taken as an embedded photojournalist during the first week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It captured the young medic running toward safety with an injured Iraqi child in his arms. It was splashed across newspapers worldwide and brought Joseph instant fame. And for years, I'd proudly displayed the front page of USA Today featuring the photo. It was a tremendous accomplishment for me; I was only 25 when I took it.

Now, though, the picture was suffused with a different meaning. Joseph Dwyer was dead of a substance overdose at 31. I'd read news reports that he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought he was being hunted by Iraqi killers. He'd been in and out of treatment. He couldn't, his mother told the media, "get over the war."

But as I stared at his image on my wall, I couldn't dodge the question: Did this photo have anything to do with his death? News reports said he hated the celebrity that came with the picture. How much, I wondered, did that moment — just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq — contribute to the burdens he'd brought home with him? If I'd never taken his picture, would he have ended up as he did? Would he still have been a casualty of war?

• • •

In the predawn hours of March 25, 2003, less than a week into the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment was in Mishkab, south of Baghdad, contending with ambushes from all directions. I was embedded with the unit as a photojournalist for the Army Times.

A man jogged up the dusty, winding road from the village toward the soldiers. His hands were in the air, one clasping a makeshift white flag.

Visibly shaken, he said that there were injured people in the village who needed immediate medical attention. Fearing an ambush, the unit commander told the man that the Army would treat the wounded but that they had to be brought to the road.

The man left. A few minutes later, he was running up the dirt road again, this time carrying a 4-year-old boy named Ali Sattar. Ali was naked from the waist down, and his left leg was wrapped in a blood-soaked white scarf. As the man ran toward me, I fired away with my camera, sensing that something special was developing before me. A medic suddenly appeared to my right and ran to the Iraqi man, who handed the injured child to the American soldier. The soldier was Dwyer. As both turned to run, Dwyer to the aid station and the man back to the village, I kept shooting, thinking, "I hope this is in focus, I hope the exposure is right, God, Warren, don't mess this one up." I knew this was a moment that the world needed to see — a moment of American heroism, of American commitment to saving a people and to saving lives.

• • •

In June 2003, a few months after that incident on the Euphrates, I traveled back to Iraq to document Ali Sattar's fate. The boy's leg injuries had been massive, and he hadn't been able to receive proper follow-up medical care from the local Iraqi hospitals. Ali couldn't walk without a painful limp, so his relatives mostly carried him everywhere.

Ali would be about 9 now. I don't know where he is, though I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder whether he has grown used to war and conquered his fears. And whether he's fully recovered and able to walk. I know there was a time when Joseph wondered about Ali, too.

• • •

Joseph and I hadn't had much time to speak in Iraq, except for spending a couple of hours together the day after I took the photograph, so I was surprised to get an e-mail from him one day a month or two after my return to Mishkab. "I can't believe you went back to Iraq. … I was afraid the kid didn't make it," he wrote on Aug. 6, 2003. "I wish I was there with you back at that village."

In January 2004, I was slated to return to Iraq for a third stint. But after two rotations in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, I decided that it was time to hang up my cameras. The war had taken its toll on my family, my friends and me. I couldn't find it in me to go back to Iraq and risk my life again. That's the difference between me and soldiers like Joseph Dwyer: I had the privilege of calling it quits whenever I wanted to. The men and women of the armed forces don't have that luxury.

I left journalism, moved home to Miami and soon after enrolled in law school. I heard from Joseph a couple more times, casually. He didn't tell me that he'd been struggling to fit back into civilian life after his three-month stint in Iraq. I first learned of his problems with PTSD in a 2005 news story about his arrest in Texas after a standoff at the apartment where he was then living. He thought there were Iraqis outside trying to get in, and he was shooting at the phantoms.

The last message Joseph sent me was on Dec. 1, 2004. "When I first got back I didn't really want to talk about being over there to anyone," he wrote. "Now looking back on it, it's one of the greatest things I've ever done. I hope you feel the same about what you have done. I truly believe you played an important role in this war. You told everyone's story."

Even as I transcribe that e-mail, it gives me pause. What happened to him after he wrote that? And did I do what he said?

U.S. soldiers perform courageous deeds daily, deeds that go undocumented — and unrecognized. The difference between Joseph's act and theirs is that I just happened to be in front of him with a camera when he did his job. If a camera could follow U.S. soldiers in action around the clock, newspapers would be flooded with images of their valiant actions.

• • •

About a week after Joseph died, his mother called me. Maureen Dwyer told me that she'd read the statements claiming that Joseph hated the fame the picture had brought him, and she wanted me to know that they weren't true. Joseph loved the photograph, she said. He'd always been proud of it. He just felt somewhat embarrassed at being singled out because so many other soldiers were doing exactly what he'd done.

Photographers like to say that when they place the camera to their eye, it acts as both a physical and mental barrier to what's going on around them — that somehow the camera can be a shield between you and the awful scenes taking place in front of you. The fatal flaw in that thinking is that the shield has a hole in it right where your eye goes.

I don't know that the photograph of Joseph was the best one I ever took, or my favorite, but I think it represented something important. At the time, it represented hope

But now when I look at the picture, it makes me realize that so many soldiers are physically torn and in such mental anguish that for some of them, hope has turned to hopelessness.

Joseph Dwyer was memorialized in that image trying to preserve life. But he could no longer preserve his own.

Warren Zinn covered Afghanistan and Iraq as a photojournalist for the Army Times from January 2002 to December 2003. He is now a student at the University of Miami School of Law.

A medic's fate in 1/250th of a second 07/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 6:00pm]
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