One mother is going all the way to Congress to solve the problems that she believes caused her son to die in the care of the U.S. Army.
Margie Taylor – who says the Army’s poor medical system and negligent staff led to the 2022 death of her son, 32-year-old Spc. Joey Lenz – is heading to Capitol Hill in February with a bill she hopes will make Lenz the last soldier to die that way.
The bill would put a limit on the number of medications a soldier can be prescribed at once, and make the military’s annual physical exams, which Taylor criticized as “not physicals,” more complete.
Lenz died in his sleep in his barracks at Fort Hood in Texas on Feb. 1, 2022. The official autopsy found that he died of a “mixed drug intoxication,” which Taylor blames on the nine medications she said Lenz had been simultaneously prescribed by the Army.
“They just kept giving him medication, medication, medication,” she said in an interview with American Military News.
The day before he died, Lenz was taking the antidepressants trazodone and sertraline, the muscle relaxer cyclobenzaprine, and fluoxetine — an antidepressant listed as a factor in the deadly drug interaction — as well as five other prescription medications, according to Taylor.
On top of that, the two other drugs in the “mixed drug intoxication” were mitragynine, an ingredient in the kratom found in Lenz’s room, and bromazolam, an anti-anxiety drug not approved for any medical use, according to the autopsy.
The autopsy also listed cardiovascular disease, including an enlarged heart, as a contributing factor in Lenz’s death. The protein troponin, a sign of heart damage, had been detected in Lenz’s blood less than a year earlier, but there was no follow-up, Taylor said.
“Any prevention or intervention could have saved his life,” Taylor said. “He was going to be career Army, and they killed him, quite honestly.”
Taylor already has a medical malpractice claim being processed, but she’s also taking the issues to Congress to make sure they don’t affect someone else next.
Her proposed bill calls for a cap on the number of drugs that can be prescribed “without an intermittent physical or lab work,” as well as “consistent counseling with preventive actions for drug interactions.”
She’s also calling for the Army’s annual physical exams to require common tests civilians may recognize from their own doctor visits: heart-checking electrocardiograms, neurological tests to check for brain and spinal cord disorders, and blood screenings that can detect any number of medical issues.
These are standard parts of many physical exams, but in the military, heart screening and “laboratory services” are only performed “as required” during the annual physical, known as the Periodic Health Assessment, according to Health.mil.
“Why are their weapons getting better care than the service member who pulls the trigger?” Taylor said. “I’m just saying. It’s that simple.”
Also, the PHA doesn’t begin in a doctor’s office, but with an online survey asking troops to self-report their health condition.
“You do not want to say that there is anything wrong with you or you will face retribution,” Taylor said. “You will not rank up. You will not be deployed. You will not see your family.”
The Defense Health Agency didn’t reply to a request to explain the role of the self-reported check-in, but a report in Stars and Stripes from when the annual physical was implemented in 2002 said the exam “relies primarily” on the survey.
Taylor is also calling for any signs of suicidal thoughts or “‘off behavior” to be able to be reported without retribution, according to the bill proposal.
She’s not fighting her battle alone.
She’s being shown the ropes of writing successful legislation by Brian Tally, a former Marine who spent three-and-a-half years pushing his own law, the Tally Bill, through Congress.
“I think that this is something here that could have been avoided,” Tally told American Military News, adding that Taylor “wants answers. And she wants to … [stop] something like this from ever happening again.”
And she’ll have support on Capitol Hill, too. She’s traveling there in February with military families from Save Our Servicemembers, a group aiming to bring “true accountability” to the “extremely basic, narrow in scope and poorly conducted” investigations they say follow non-combat military deaths.
“The redactions, the FOIA requests, the inability to go on base and talk to those who were around your loved one – all of that prevents you from ever getting the real story,” said the group’s founder, Manny Vega. “And so a lot of families just f–king give up.”
Vega, whose son died 10 days into Marine Corps Boot Camp in 2018, said the group will spend four days in D.C. next month reintroducing their pro-transparency message to the newly elected Congress.
“We have to have a constant presence in D.C., or we’re forgotten,” said Vega, adding that the group has no “champion” in Congress. “We’re going to … establish that relationship, open lines of communication.”
Taylor said the newly elected Texas Rep. Morgan Luttrell, twin brother of “Lone Survivor” author Marcus Luttrell, told her he will help her with the bill. She also intends to “pinpoint” members of the House Armed Services Committee and make herself known to them.
“I’m not a willy-nilly person,” she said. “I don’t want to take up too much of people’s time. I want to be very direct and make it simple. You know, to help save lives.”