Florida mother channels grief in fight against veteran suicides

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DAVIE (AP/MIAMI HERALD)

Janos “John” Lutz was 19 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school, with the goal of doing his part for his country in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As he hoped, he was deployed to the front lines in Iraq.

Janine Lutz remembers the first time her son called her from the war zone. He was solemn as he told her what he had seen that day – a car bomb explosion.

“We were the first to arrive on the scene. Body parts were everywhere,” her boy said, cautious as he recounted some of the details. He said he was fine, it was all part of his service. He was now a Marine, and that’s what Marines do.

But at the end of the call, just before hanging up, he suddenly lowered his voice to a barely whisper, so soft no one could hear him.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said under his breath.

It was the first crack in his voice she had heard since he had joined the army, a chilling reminder of the reality of her son’s wish.

But as brutal as his time in Iraq was, it was nothing compared to his next posting in Afghanistan, where he saw combat in one of the greatest military offensives of the war. It was during this operation, in July 2009, that his best friend, Lance Cpl. Charles Sharp, was killed. Lutz and his comrades from Echo Company’s Marines 2 Platoon dragged Sharp’s body, hoping to get it to the medical helicopter, but Sharp bled to death in their hands before they could bring him food. ‘assistance. Lutz saw much more carnage, of which his mother would only later learn from some of the Marines with whom her son served.

When Lutz returned to the United States a year later, he was tormented by nightmares and pain from injuries he sustained in a battlefield explosion. At Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he was prescribed an assortment of drugs. By the time he returned home to Davie, Florida, he had attempted suicide — and he was addicted to anti-anxiety medication.

He tried to wean himself off the drug, and for a brief moment it looked like he was on the road to recovery. But 18 months later, in January 2013, he overdosed on morphine and a strong sedative, leaving a note on his bedroom door that read “Do not resuscitate”.

He was 24 years old.

About 17 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. In Florida, 550 veterans died by suicide in 2019, the most recent statistic available from the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs.

For Janine Lutz, the answer lies in the connections between veterans and other veterans in their local community.

She founded Cpl. Janos V. Lutz Live to Tell Foundation, which offers programs for veterans with PTSD. Each month, she hosts a meeting of the Broward chapter of “Buddies Up”, where veterans and first responders (who also suffer from PTSD) help each other. She traveled across the country in an RV to hold similar get-togethers and also developed an app for veterans to connect with other veterans.

“People think they have an idea of ​​what death and destruction looks like, but until you really see it, it’s a whole different game,” she said.

“These veterans think if they reach out they are weak. No, by reaching out you might save that person you are reaching out to.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has been working to address the suicide crisis among veterans and service members since the late 2000s, when rates began to rise.

The outbreak has led the VA to try new approaches, and even reach out to experts around the world to find solutions. Yet many veterans and their families wonder how VA treats post-traumatic combat stress disorder and other war-related injuries.

“When Johnny came home, he wasn’t the same person anymore. The war had changed him. I didn’t understand what was happening because he buried all his trauma and anger in a mind-numbing fog of prescribed medication,” her mother said.

It wasn’t until after her son’s death that Janine learned that VA doctors were prescribing her son a cocktail of drugs so common that members of the military community she spoke to had come to call therapy” Zombie Dope”.

A pill helped him sleep. Another pain relieved. Another pill was for anxiety. Another was for his depression. The VA prescribed benzodiazepines, which his own medical records indicated he should not have. Suicidal ideation is one of the symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal.

“It’s just plain criminal how the VA gives our veterans a pill for every symptom. For them, the answer to their problems is a pill – instead of getting to the root of the problem. Let’s trace what they went through, the hell they went through on the battlefield, let’s help them process it through other fighters, not with a psychiatrist who has never seen battle.

Between 1.9 and 3 million American soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of them have been deployed more than once, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute.

Countless soldiers who have returned home after battle suffer from what are known as “invisible war wounds,” or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The military has long struggled with how to treat these brain disorders, largely because they are difficult to detect and diagnose. Many soldiers suffer the psychological effects without realizing the cause of their symptoms, including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Studies show that a majority of people with PTSD who use PTSD medications respond well to anti-depression medications, when used correctly. Medications can improve mood, help patients cope with stress, and reduce symptoms of PTSD.

But Cole Lyle, a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan and now leads Mission Roll Call, a veterans advocacy group, said drugs should not be the primary focus of treatment for veterans. The agency has spent too much time on what its doctors and clinicians call “evidence-based” research and treatments that focus primarily on drugs and psychotherapy, he said.

The VA “views the issue of suicide among vets as a mental health issue, which is a mistake,” Lyle said. “Looking at this through the lens of mental health ignores all of the other factors that led the veteran to get to this point in the first place.”

Lyle knows what despair is because he considered suicide.

“In 2014, after my return from the war, I had no job. I had a lack of purpose. I felt alone,” he said. “It was a low point in my life. But it forced me to get involved in politics and veteran politics.

Now, Lyle is working with federal and state lawmakers to lobby on veterans’ issues, including suicide prevention. He traveled across Florida last month to speak to veterans.

In April, VA officials announced plans to direct more than $50 million in suicide prevention program grants to community groups and other grassroots organizations to help veterans.

In 2020, Congress passed a sweeping bipartisan bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides. Since then, funding for suicide prevention programs has steadily increased, from $206 million in 2019 to $598 million in 2022.

“The traditional model of medication for veterans is not conducive to ensuring that their quality of life is maintained and stable,” said U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on veterans affairs. House veterans. “We are now focusing on funding global health – not just medicine.”

In recent years, Florida State has also redirected some of its funding to community programs that are better able to reach veterans with PTSD and brain injuries.

“We are moving away from drugs and now have other therapies,” said Steve Murray, spokesman for the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs. “We have hyperbaric oxygen treatment, canine warriors, equine therapy, light sensitivity therapy. We are now using non-traditional means to solve the problem and it has had some success.

But he and others acknowledge that many veterans are not taking advantage of the programs. The military are often reluctant to ask for help and historically there has been a distrust of the VA.

“A lot of veterans I talk to don’t use VA and have a negative perception of VA. There’s no way to counter those perceptions – they try to use VA but get frustrated with it. the amount of communication just to make an appointment,” Lyle said.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis recently launched a suicide prevention program for veterans and expanded career and training opportunities for members of the military. Among other things, the state has staffed its 211 information hotline with credentialed veterans to help other veterans. Each county in the state also has a Veterans Affairs Coordinator, and each VA Medical Center has a Suicide Prevention Coordinator who conducts outreach activities.

But the state is large, and many veterans retire to Florida from other states without registering for VA benefits in Florida.

“My feeling is that we still have a crisis in the state of Florida. We still don’t know who all the veterans in Florida are. We need to reach out to them,” said Clara Reynolds, CEO and President of the Crisis Center of Tampa. , which funds suicide prevention programs for veterans throughout Florida.

“We have very many pockets of veteran suicides in the state, and we’re all trying to work together as a state. No agency can do that, it takes all of us working together to tackle it together.

COVID-19 has also slowed awareness, though it hasn’t completely stopped, said Murray, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked for the state’s Veterans Affairs office. for 16 years. Some therapies are still offered remotely through telehealth, which has connected veterans in more rural areas of the state to the programs, he added.

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