When a South Florida mother lost her Marine son to suicide six years ago, she made it her life's mission to help other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and in the process, has taken on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Janine Lutz's son, Janos "John" V. Lutz, died by what she calls a "pharmaceutically-induced suicide" after ingesting a handful of Morphine and Klonopin pills given to him by VA doctors. He was 24 years old.
Lutz blames John's death on the cocktail of powerful medications he was prescribed to treat his PTSD, specifically Klonopin, the brand name of clonazepam. The medication is a type of benzodiazepine, a class of drugs used to treat anxiety. The drug can trigger suicidal thoughts and tendencies in some patients.
"I know my son died of pharmaceutically-induced suicide, it was the drugs that made him suicidal," said Lutz. "It wasn't his will [to die], it was the medication that f----- with his mind."
The VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder recommends against the use of benzodiazepines to treat PTSD. However, the VA does not outright ban doctors from prescribing it. The agency told NBC that it did not believe an outright ban would be in the best interest of patients because it could be complicated to discontinue usage in veterans who have developed a physical dependency to the drug. VA spokeswoman Susan Carter said 10.8% of veterans with PTSD had a "benzo" prescription in 2018, the latest year for which data was available.
John had served back-to-back tours in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009. In Afghanistan, he fought in Operation Strike of the Sword, a massive U.S.-led offensive in the summer of 2009 to take control of a Taliban stronghold in the country. The operation left more than a dozen U.S. Marines dead and many more injured — physically and mentally.
"When he came home, he was visibly different, severe PTSD," said Lutz. "As a new mom, receiving a new war fighter, I didn't have any tools. I didn't know the things that I know now."
What Lutz didn't know was just how bad John was struggling.
After being diagnosed with PTSD by the VA stateside, John was given between 17 to 24 prescriptions at any given time. When some of them were taken together, the side effects included hallucinations, paranoia and suicide.
One week after being prescribed Klonopin, John attempted suicide for the first time in 2010. Despite a medical history of mental health problems related to the drug, he would be prescribed Klonopin two more times.
John was also taking morphine for combat-related injuries. Lutz said she kept his medications "under lock and key," at his request, and that she doled them out only as needed."
"He says, 'I need you to take my pain meds, and when I need them, just give me one,' and I said, 'Ok honey,' and he said, 'Yeah mom, I'm just scared,'" she said.
But after a 2013 visit to a VA psychiatrist, who Lutz said John was open with about the fact that his mom locked up his medications and his history with suicidal thoughts, the doctor prescribed him a stronger dosage of Klonopin. That visit was followed by one to an orthopedic doctor who Lutz said gave her son additional morphine pills.
Eight days later, John was dead.
"I was mad," Lutz said.
She believes her son's death was preventable and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the VA and won in November 2017. While the agency never acknowledged wrongdoing, Lutz received a settlement from the VA.
She told the Military Times in 2015 that she doesn't dispute the VA's argument that her son had ample access to medical treatment. But, "she believes his physicians did not thoroughly read his lengthy medical records, did not understand the extent of his injuries and didn't read closely enough to know that some of his medications caused him to contemplate suicide."
Lutz turned her grief into action and started the LCpl Janos V. Lutz Live to Tell Foundation, a non-profit that works to reduce veteran suicide by pairing veterans with other veterans and providing them with services and access to local resources, according to its website. Through Live to Tell, Lutz has also launched Lutz Buddy Up, which helps connect veterans through its social clubs for peer support.
Her latest venture is Vet-Connect, an app that helps law enforcement and first responders connect veterans to resources in their community. Several South Florida police departments have already adopted the system. Lutz said the Sunrise Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff's Office have also expressed interest in the app. Her goal is to grow the app nationally as a resource for veterans everywhere.
"The culture the military creates, especially among combat veterans, where service members take care of each other is re-established locally reducing the barriers of trust, shame, and accountability that organizations typically face when attempting to connect with a veteran in order to provide services to improve their quality of life and mental health," said a description of the program on the foundation's website.
According to the VA, veterans are 1.5 times more likely than civilians to die by suicide, with men ages 18 to 34 at higher risks. Lutz said she wants the VA to change its protocols and the overall way it treats veterans with PTSD.
"Medication should not be an answer to every single problem, that should be the last resort," Lutz said. "[The] first resort is to build local communities. Let’s connect them with other war fighters -- that’s who can understand a war fighter, another war fighter."
Lutz said, for her, every day is Memorial Day. But, she will continue her fight to save others.
"My son is gone, but his death will not be in vain," she said. "Because of his death, others will be saved."
Carter said in an emailed statement to NBC that as part of the VA's Psychotropic Drug Safety Initiative program, they will be starting in July "to reduce benzodiazepine prescribing among high risk populations." The target groups include veterans with PTSD, older Veterans, veterans with substance use disorders and veterans who are prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioids.
Asked if the agency kept track of the number of veterans who died by suicide who also had a benzodiazepine prescription, Carter said "yes," but did not provide any further details.
You can download Vet-Connect on the App Store or Google Play.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.