This month’s report of the death of Joseph Patrick Dwyer, former Army medic in Iraq takes me back to the days my brother Bill spent in Viet Nam and his experiences after his return. AP photographer Warren Zinn photographed Dwyer running as he carried a little Iraqi boy to safety in 2003. As predicted, the photograph brought an uncomfortable fame to Dwyer. He died last month due to an apparent overdose of prescription drugs in Pinehurst, N. C. He was 31.
I was about 7 years old when my big brother “B” (as a toddler I had trouble pronouncing Bill) boarded a plane for Viet Nam. He was a Navy Corpsman. I remember the giddy anxiety of the drive from our home in Wisconsin to O’Hare airport in Chicago. It was dawning on me that our family was clinging onto the inexorable freight train of war for dear life and we had no damn control whatsoever.
When that terrible moment came for him to board the plane I panicked, suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My seven –year-old mind which was usually occupied with jealously over our next door neighbor Dawn Ryan’s extensive Barbie collection, grasped that I might never see B again.
Thankfully, I remembered my lucky rock that I always carried on my person. I flung my arms around B, burying my face in his scratchy pea coat and deeply breathed in his smell of starched Navy whites and faint odor of Old Spice and beer still clinging to him from last nights send off. Secretly, I thrust my lucky rock deeply into his coat pocket. My mom peeled me off him and said, “Now don’t make B feel sad.”
I often thought about the rock in B’s pocket in the months that followed. Did he find it and say, “What the hell is this rock doing in my pocket?” and simply toss it away or did he keep it? Somehow I knew that my intent was the important thing but I still had confidence in my rock’s power. The thought of that rock carried me through our family’s terrible months of dread when each late night phone call made my stomach flutter.
B was wounded a couple of times during his tour; the one that sent him home occurred as
he administered plasma to one of the wounded Marines in whose company he was assigned. As he rose up in the battlefield to start the flow of fluid, a bullet grazed his throat and entered his shoulder, knocking him backwards.
When he came home, I threw my arms around him; the rock had worked!! But, somehow, I couldn’t really get a good hold on him; I was bewildered to find that I could no longer fully hug him.
He spent the following weeks at our house pacing like a caged animal or standing in a military “at-ease” position in our kitchen. During his many nightmares, he jumped clear out of bed onto the floor, weeping with a sound I’d never heard before.
Thankfully b has survived, but not without a struggle that I know I will never fully understand. Like his fellow corpsman Joseph Patrick Dwyer, I don’t think he ever figured out why he lived when so many of his fellow soldiers died. Patrick’s death reminds me that we could have so easily lost B, that the pain of war doesn’t end when the soldiers come home. I can’t begin to know the pain of the Dwyer family, but my heart is with them today.
B currently demonstrates and writes against the Iraqi War that he calls a “terrible, terrible mistake.” Our hugs are now full and complete. Oh, and the rock? He has no memory of it but he got awfully wet in the eyes when I told him about it.