Soldier’s story: Hidden cost of 15 minutes’ fame

[Army medic Joseph Dwyer: Did this photo figure in his death?]

Former Gannett Army Times photographer Warren Zinn wonders whether his high-profile photo of an Army medic rescuing a 4-year-old Iraqi boy contributed to that soldier’s untimely death in June. The 2003 photo was “splashed across newspapers worldwide,” bringing the soldier instant fame, Zinn writes in yesterday’s Washington Post. “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.”

Zinn’s piece recalls one I wrote for USA Today with Charisse Jones — a story prompted by the suicide of a surveyor credited with finding nine trapped Pennsylvania coal miners in 2002. Bob Long‘s death, we wrote, illustrated a disturbing trend that emerged after tragedies including the Oklahoma City bombing, Sept. 11, and the 1987 rescue (inset, left) of baby Jessica McClure from a Texas well shaft. “Some of those intimately involved in storied rescue efforts — men and women lauded as heroes — have committed suicide,” our story said. “Experts, citing causes from post-traumatic stress to the destructive power of sudden fame, worry more such deaths will follow.”

Related: Death on the CNN curve — the aftermath of McClure’s rescue

Noteworthy: Army Times is part of Gannett’s Army Times Publishing Co. in Springfield, Va.

A journalist’s responsibility?
A public school official killed himself as I was researching his possible financial misdeeds, when I was an investigative reporter at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. I did not feel responsible for his death. Would you?

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, use this link from a non-work computer; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

4 Responses to “Soldier’s story: Hidden cost of 15 minutes’ fame”

  1. john reinan Says:

    At the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, I wrote a feature story about Mount Hope Cemetery, a beautiful, historic, Victorian cemetery in Rochester. Frank Gannett, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are among the notables buried there. Also buried there is Edward R. Crone Jr., a WWII soldier from Rochester who was an inspiration for Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” (Another story I did for the D&C.)

    As part of my reporting, I talked to the very colorful operator of the crematorium, a man named Butch Kronk. Butch had a red dragon tattooed on his chest and was a font of quotes.

    “Yep, I’m the cook,” he said upon greeting me, then went on to tell stories such as the time a 500-pound woman started a grease fire in the chimney that burned half the roof.

    I included all this in my story, and never has there been such a reaction to anything I’ve written. The mayor’s office got more than 500 outraged calls the day the story ran (the cemetery was municipally owned). The mayor issued a statement of his own outrage, promising to punish Butch for his comments. As it turned out, union rules prevented his firing, but they demoted him to the leaf crew.

    I never talked to Butch about this, and he never called me about it, either. But I’ve always felt bad that the poor guy got in such trouble for his ebullience and candor.

  2. Jim Hopkins Says:

    I’ve heard about those grease fires, too, John. Meanwhile, here’s a photo of Frank Gannett’s newspaper-themed headstone:

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I did an investigative story in Fort Myers back in the early ’80s about weight-loss clinics that were using potentially dangerous injections of a hormone taken from the urine of pregnant women.
    A local retired doctor gave the rubber-stamp physicals. I interviewed him days before the story ran, and he was very scared what the article would do to his reputation. I told him he wasn’t the focus of the story, but would be quoted.
    He killed himself the day after the story ran. The family said he had a history of emotional problems.
    Ironically, the state took no action against the owners of the clinics. People thinking of using the clinics were enlightened, I guess. But ultimately, all that occurred was the loss of an old man’s life.
    I have questioned ever since what good came from the story.
    It was the last major investigative piece I did where the fate of someone’s life might hang in the balance.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Are we asking the right question?

    PFC Dwyer had PTSD not from being on the cover of Army Times, but by being a multiple-tour veteran of the Iraq War.

    And he killed himself not because he was on the cover of another publication, but he couldn’t get into a clinic to treat his PTSD, which drove him to self-medicate to the point of suicide.

    There are tens of thousands of PFC Dwyer’s on the streets of America right now, and they may very well suffer the same fate he did. The answer is to provide the treatment and compassion our veterans have earned fighting for their country, regardless if we agree or disagree with the wars they fought.

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