Hours into a battle in Afghanistan on his second tour of duty, U.S. Marine Janos “Johnny” Lutz saw his best friend die, killed by an enemy bullet to the neck. Before the fighting ended, more Marines, more friends had fallen in Operation Khanjar.
Lutz never really recovered from the wreckage of that day in July 2009. He was ravaged with nightmares and anxiety, depression and “survivor’s guilt.” The official diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder, treated with a combination of prescription medications. In January 2013, 14 months after surviving deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the decorated Lance Corporal died after swallowing a handful of tranquilizers and pain pills at his family home in Davie. He was 24.
His mother, Janine Lutz, poured her grief into creating a foundation to help troubled veterans. And then she got angry. Now Lutz has sent an official letter of intent to sue the U.S. Veterans Administration for wrongful death, accusing VA doctors of prescribing her son powerful drugs even after he told them the medication made him feel suicidal.
“This was completely preventable. There is so much that needs to change with this system. These dangerous cocktails are not working but the VA continues with this check-in-the-box method,’’ said Lutz, 53, referring to the VA’s approach to treating PTSD. “I don’t want Johnny’s death to be in vain. I hope this will save somebody’s life.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The letter to the VA, dated Nov. 3, claims Lutz’s medical and military records show his doctors had “overwhelming warnings” that he should not be prescribed the anti-anxiety medication Klonopin — the first time he used it, he attempted to commit suicide — and should only be given medication in one-week supplies. Despite a known medical history, Lutz was prescribed Klonopin for his PTSD two more times by doctors.
Days before his death on Jan. 12, 2013, Lutz said that the dosage of Klonopin was increased. Her son died of a fatal combination of that drug and morphine, pain medication used to treat his combat-related back and knee injuries.
“The VA failed to know what was in his records. They failed when they made the decision to give him Klonopin as well as the decision to give him that much morphine,” said John Uustal, of Kelley Uustal, the Fort Lauderdale law firm handling the case. “They failed in their decision not to treat PTSD in the best way we know how. Instead of trying to medicate him, they could have brought in the family and gave him the right resources to fight suicidal thoughts.”
Miami Veterans Administration spokesman Shane Suzuki said in a statement: “While our thoughts go out to the friends and family of Mr. Lutz, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Suicides have plagued the military, the numbers growing as more veterans return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with combat injuries, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the general pressures of transitioning to civilian life.
Suzuki said the VA offers a variety of evidence-based treatment options for veterans with PTSD and other mental health conditions that can include medication management and individual and group psychotherapies. He said the families are involved as needed. In fiscal year 2014, the Miami VA Healthcare System treated 22,968 patients with mental health services, including 6,415 patients for PTSD.
Months after Lutz died, his mother launched a foundation bearing her son’s name. The LCpl Janos V Lutz Live To Tell organization pairs veterans with other veterans, providing an instant support system. Her database now includes about 60 veterans, mostly from the recent wars. She also has collected the 182 photos of veterans with PTSD who committed suicide, from a Marine who died Jan. 23, 1989, in Richmond, Virginia, to a Marine who died in Lawrence, Kentucky, on Nov. 2.
Lutz enlisted in the Marines just after high school. He was a machine gunner with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines Regiment, deploying to Ramadi, Iraq, in 2007 and then Afghanistan in May 2009, where he was part of Operation Khanjar in the Helmand Province.
After his return, he struggled stateside, scarred by the violent deaths of his comrades. In early 2010, Lutz went to the Naval Hospital at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina for mental health issues. Doctors prescribed him Klonopin for the first time. A side effect of the drug is that it can cause suicidal thoughts. On June 6, he overdosed on prescription pills. “After the attempted suicide, it was noted that Klonopin should not be a drug of choice for Mr. Lutz. There is no indication in the records that he was advised of the same,” according to the letter announcing the intent to sue.
Three months later, Lutz participated in an inpatient PTSD treatment program at Poplar Springs Hospital in Virginia where again, he was prescribed Klonopin and began having suicidal thoughts. He was taken off the medication immediately. “It does not appear Mr. Lutz was ever advised of the correlation of Klonopin to the return to suicide ideations by either the doctors at Camp LeJeune or Poplar Springs,” the letter said.
After he was discharged from the military, Lutz returned to Florida, first living in Orlando with his girlfriend for about six months. Then he moved back to Davie and worked in the family’s decorative concrete business in Miami. Around that time, he began receiving treatment at the Miami VA Hospital and Broward County VA Outpatient Clinic for his physical injuries and his PTSD. Lutz’ mother alleges that despite his medical history, the local doctors — both primary care and psychiatric —prescribed her son too much medication and failed to closely monitor him.
In late 2012, Lutz began to spiral in a PTSD-related relapse. He asked his mother for help.
“Johnny was starting to get depressed, he was isolating. He had broken up with his girlfriend. He was disconnecting from life,” she said. “On New Year’s Day, he called me about 10 at night. He was crying. He said, ‘Mom, can you please come lock up all my guns and my meds?’” she recalled. “He gave me two vials of medication. In my ignorance at that time, I thought that was enough.’’
Lutz’s medical records show that on Jan. 4, he told a doctor he was depressed about the breakup with his girlfriend and was having trouble sleeping. He reported that his mother was now keeping his medication. Lutz was told to try Klonopin again and prescribed a one-week supply to be taken twice daily for anxiety. Another doctor prescribed him more morphine for his back and knee pains.
A week later, at a follow-up doctor’s appointment, records show Lutz said the Klonopin was helping him to sleep and he asked for an increase. He also agreed that in order to up the dosage, he would need to decrease the dosage of morphine. He denied any suicidal or homicidal thoughts at the time.
“If they had just picked up the phone. They knew the guns and medication was now locked up because he told them,’’ Lutz said. “They knew I was doling out the medication. If they had just called me, they would have known he already had medication. He did not need more.”
Eight days after Lutz was prescribed Klonopin for the third time, he was dead.
He left a note for his family typed on his laptop. It read, in part: “I'm sorry. I am happier now. ’’