DAVIE, Fla. — It has been two years since Marine veteran Janos “John” Lutz committed suicide, wracked with the memories and guilt he came home with following a deployment to Afghanistan. An enlisted infantryman, he had been involved in the largest helicopter offensive that the Marine Corps had launched since the Vietnam War, taking back territory from the Taliban. And he lost his best friend in that mission.
Lutz’s death sent his mother, Janine, 53, into a spiral, she said. She, too, considered suicide before deciding that she wanted to honor her son’s memory by raising awareness about the unseen wounds that combat veterans can have, she said. In May 2013, she launched a foundation bearing her son’s name, providing a support system for returning veterans and their families here in this town just north of Miami.
“After I decided not to kill myself … I told myself, we need to raise awareness,” Ms. Lutz said. “We need to tell the families about post-traumatic stress, how to deal with and what to expect — These guys need to know they are not crazy, that what they are feeling is normal for experiencing the theater of war. They are survivors, and they are awesome.”
On Sunday, the second annual Lance Cpl. Janos V. Lutz Live to Tell Awareness Motorcycle Ride will travel 26 miles, starting here at Western High School, where Lutz was a student before joining the Marine Corps, and finishing in nearby Pembroke Pines, Fla. Its purpose is to encourage veterans to grow from their most difficult days and provide information about post-traumatic stress to their families.
Lutz, who left the service as a lance corporal, committed suicide two years ago on Monday while dogged by the memories of his 2009 deployment to Afghanistan. An enlisted infantryman, he had deployed to Iraq previously and found it to be a “cakewalk,” his mother said – but the violence and unforgiving nature of his next war-zone assignment was not.
The worst day was July 2, 2009. Reveille came early that day as John and the rest of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, of Camp Lejeune, N.C., began to awake from their slumber under the blanket of cool air and the growing anticipation at what the day might bring. The Marines didn’t get much sleep the night before as Afghanistan’s “120 days of wind” – famous for kicking up brutal sandstorms – rained a steady stream of dirt onto the men and their weapons and gear.
By mid-morning the temperature had swelled to more than 110 degrees. Some Marines could be seen breathing every ounce of life out of the cigarettes they had lit, while others turned to their iPods. Most stood in silence, alone in their thoughts, as they began to clean their weapons.
CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters started to land in the background at Forward Operating Base Dwyer. The objective was to seize control of supply routes the Taliban was using to resupply their forces farther north and improve security for the upcoming Afghan voter registration period.
Second Battalion, 8th Marines, was about to embark on Operation Khanjar, or “Strike of the Sword,” the largest U.S. military offensive since the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 and the largest helicopter offensive that the Marine Corps had launched since the Vietnam War. I was there as an infantryman with a different platoon, and part of the same raid.
The early morning anxiety was quickly brought to a halt once the helicopters touched down in the recently plowed marijuana fields of Mianposteh, a village on the outskirts of Garmsir district in Helmand province.
Mere hours into a firefight that would not cease until sunset, one of John’s platoon mates, Lance Cpl. Charles S. Sharp of Adairville, Ga., was shot in the neck by a sniper while trying to advance into a village.
The 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary, “Hell and Back Again,” depicts the scene. The Marines of Echo Company’s 2nd Platoon huddled around Sharp as his blood poured onto the pants of another Marine holding his head. They called out to him to wake up — but he didn’t.
John and his fellow Marines would run Sharp’s limp body down the long dirt road, hoping they could load him onto the medical helicopter in time to save him. But Sharp — John’s best friend — would bleed out before ever reaching that helicopter.
By the end of 2009, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, would lose 13 more men during their deployment.
Just a few weeks after returning to Camp Lejeune, N.C., the battalion held a memorial service in honor of its troops who died in what was already America’s longest war. Four days later, the unit lost another Marine: Cpl. Xhacob LaTorre, who succumbed to wounds he has suffered in Afghanistan.
At the memorial service, the main theme song from HBO’s Band of Brothers reverberated through the speakers of the base theater as John entered the lobby. An artist had created hand-drawn portraits of the dead that lined the stage, accompanied by the traditional battlefield cross.
The faces within the frames stared back at the crowd of Marines, who appeared to have aged years in a matter of seven months. Silent reflection was interrupted only by a widow’s screams, which echoed throughout the theater.
For John, there was survivor’s guilt and unbearable memories. In particular, Sharp’s death haunted him.
Sitting in John’s bedroom more than five years later, the Marine’s mother says he was an empty shell when he returned.
“No expression,” she said of his demeanor. “I didn’t know what to say or what to do. It seemed like everything I said made him mad.”
Over the next few months, John was tormented by the memories of war. Depression and anxiety were his “new normal” while awake, nightmares while asleep. He was very reactive, and filled with rage, his mother recalled.
John was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and treated with a combination of prescription medications and group therapy that didn’t work, his mother said. At one point, John was on somewhere between 17 and 24 different drugs. His first suicide attempt came on June 6, 2010, just seven months after getting back from Afghanistan.
“He called me up and said ‘goodbye,’” Ms. Lutz said. “He said, ‘I am sorry, I can’t take the pain anymore.’”
After awaking in the hospital, his mother said his response was anguished: “Why am I still here?”
That same year, another Marine, former Cpl. Clay Hunt, also committed suicide. His mother, Susan Selke testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in November, and recalled treatment similar to Lutz’s.
“He received counseling only as far as a brief discussion regarding whether the medication he was prescribed was working or not,” Selke said. “If it was not, he would be given a new medication. Clay used to say, “I’m a guinea pig for drugs. They’ll put me on one thing, I’ll have side effects, and then they put me on something else.”
Selke was testifying as a bill named after her son, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, was under consideration by lawmakers. It ultimately was blocked by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), but was reintroduced this month. In part, it would have required a pilot program that would take back unneeded prescription drugs from patients like John and Clay. Veterans have used old prescription drugs to kill themselves, but Coburn thought the legislation included too much new federal spending.
Hunt — profiled here on Checkpoint — committed suicide on March 31, 2011. For John, the turmoil continued until the evening of Jan. 12, 2013, when he was found dead on the floor in his bedroom. He had overdosed after swallowing a handful of Morphine and Klonopin. On his laptop, John had left a suicide note. He said, “I am sorry … I am happier now.”
The bike ride this Sunday will give Ms. Lutz a chance to spread the message of hope to veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war, connecting them to resources and support networks, so that ultimately, these veterans do not have to suffer in silence.
“The people must fight for those who fought for us,” Ms. Lutz said.
Until then, Ms. Lutz will continue to add faces to a traveling memorial wall she has created. Spanning 40 feet, it includes 200 portraits of service members who have committed suicide. By the time of the motorcycle ride, another 242 veterans will have taken their lives, according to 2012 suicide data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of them will be older than 50, the data shows, but others are like Lutz – young, and just a few years out from deploying.
James LaPorta is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan.