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 four and a half 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?
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In the pre-dawn 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. Sheltered for the night in the cramped quarters of a Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle, I managed to sleep through intense fighting but was awakened when the ground started shaking beneath me. U.S. aircraft were dropping bombs on Iraqi fighters, who were using the cover of the nearby village on the banks of the Euphrates River to launch their attacks against the 7th Cavalry.
My eyes barely open, I grabbed my camera gear, threw on my helmet and bullet-proof vest and crawled out of the Bradley. I opened the hatch to see fire engulfing the palm trees that lined the Euphrates. A few minutes later, a man appeared, jogging 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.
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