Story originally appeared July 21, 2008.
PINEHURST, N.C. ? Officers had been to the white ranch house at 560 W. Longleaf many times before over the past year to respond to a "barricade situation." Each had ended uneventfully, with Joseph Dwyer coming out or telling police in a calm voice through the window that he was OK.
But this time was different.
The Iraq war veteran had called a taxi service to take him to the emergency room. But when the driver arrived, Dwyer shouted that he was too weak to get up and open the door.
The officers asked Dwyer for permission to kick it in.
"Go ahead!" he yelled.
They found Dwyer lying on his back, his clothes soiled with urine and feces. Scattered on the floor around him were dozens of spent cans of Dust-Off, a refrigerant-based aerosol normally used to clean electrical equipment.
Dwyer told police Lt. Mike Wilson he'd been "huffing" the aerosol.
"Help me, please!" the former Army medic begged Wilson. "I'm dying. Help me. I can't breathe."
Unable to stand or even sit up, Dwyer was hoisted onto a stretcher. As paramedics prepared to load him into an ambulance, an officer noticed Dwyer's eyes had glassed over and were fixed.
A half hour later, he was dead.
When Dionne Knapp learned of her friend's June 28 death, her first reaction was to be angry at Dwyer. How could he leave his wife and daughter like this? Didn't he know he had friends who cared about him, who wanted to help?
But as time passed, Knapp's anger turned toward the Army.
A photograph taken in the first days of the war had made the medic from New York's Long Island a symbol of the United States' good intentions in the Middle East. When he returned home, he was hailed as a hero.
But for most of the past five years, the 31-year-old soldier had writhed in a private hell, shooting at imaginary enemies and dodging nonexistent roadside bombs, sleeping in a closet bunker and trying desperately to huff away the "demons" in his head. When his personal problems became public, efforts were made to help him, but nothing seemed to work.
This broken, frightened man had once been the embodiment of American might and compassion. If the military couldn't save him, Knapp thought, what hope was there for the thousands suffering in anonymity?
Aftermath of Sept. 11
Like many, Dwyer joined the military in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
His father and three brothers are all cops. One brother, who worked in Lower Manhattan, happened to miss his train that morning and so hadn't been there when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Joseph, the second-youngest of six, decided that he wanted to get the people who'd "knocked my towers down."
And he wanted to be a medic. (Dwyer's first real job was as a transporter for a hospital in the golf resort town of Pinehurst, where his parents had moved after retirement.)
In 2002, Dwyer was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas. The jokester immediately fell in with three colleagues ? Angela Minor, Sgt. Jose Salazar, and Knapp. They spent so much time together after work that comrades referred to them as "The Four Musketeers."
Knapp had two young children and was going through a messy divorce. Dwyer stepped in as a surrogate dad, showing up in uniform at her son Justin's kindergarten and coming by the house to assemble toys that Knapp couldn't figure out.
When it became clear that the U.S. would invade Iraq, Knapp became distraught, confiding to Dwyer that she would rather disobey her deployment orders than leave her kids.
Dwyer asked to go in her place. When she protested, he insisted: "Trust me, this is what I want to do. I want to go." After a week of nagging, his superiors relented.