Not all who lost their lives serving their country died on the battlefield. Startling numbers of veterans commit suicide. Janine Lutz, of Davie, thinks they deserve to be remembered this Memorial Day, too. The mother of a 24-year-old Marine who took his life two years ago, she has created the LCpl Janos V. Lutz Post Traumatic Stress Memorial Wall, so others can see the faces and read the stories of veterans who died at their own hands.
The portable “wall” — a line of 8-foot-tall wooden easels displaying photos of about 250 veterans nationwide — will be on display May 24-25 at Cafe 27 on U.S. Highway 27 in Weston.
“After I lost my son, I realized I wanted to honor him and all [veterans] who died of suicide,” said Lutz. She was overwhelmed by guilt after her oldest son, Janos Victor Lutz, swallowed an overdose of pills prescribed to him by VA doctors.
“I’m sorry,” he wrote in a note found in his open laptop. “I am happier now.”
Trying to cope, Lutz decided to reach out to others suffering the same pain. She started the LCpl Janos V. Lutz Live to Tell Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at supporting veterans and military families affected by post-traumatic stress. Today, statistics show there is almost one veteran suicide an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One of Lutz’s first projects was to set up a foundation Facebook page, where she encouraged other grieving military parents to share memories of their children lost to suicide. The page grew into a poignant online memorial. Lutz decided to laminate and mount the submitted photos and stories on portable racks, which she displays at South Florida parades and veterans’ events.
Initially, onlookers’ reactions took her by surprise. “People were so moved when they saw the faces of all these beautiful men and women, they just stood there and started crying,” Lutz said. “I realized the wall could be a way to make people wake up and see what’s happening.”
The foundation also runs the Buddy Up Combat Outpost program, which pairs PTS veterans with former combat fighters, as well as hosts an annual motorcycle ride.
Many of the veterans’ faces gazing out from the wall are heartbreakingly young and proud.
Timothy Defoix Stalter was photographed standing tall in the full-dress uniform of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. “Since he was a child, Tim wanted to be a soldier. He wore a military-style haircut from the time he was a toddler,” said his mother, Melissa Stalter Hicks, of Palm Bay.
Stalter enlisted as soon as he turned 18, Hicks said, and was deployed to Afghanistan. He rose to the rank of sergeant and earned numerous medals, including a Purple Heart, coming back to his young family in 2008.
“He wasn’t the same Tim. He had a lot of anger, depression. It affected him deeply when his buddies died over there,” said Hicks, 48.
In 2013, Stalter, 28, shot himself in the head. His toddler son was with him in the car, she said.
A 2012 VA report estimated 8,000 veterans die from suicide annually. Report authors said that number probably was low, as data from 21 states was incomplete.
Hicks will travel to Weston this Memorial Day to see the wall, and again look into her son’s eyes. Although remembering can be hard, Hicks said she is grateful the wall gives her a chance to honor her son and others like him. She regularly checks the online site, emailing condolences when she sees a new photo.
“My heart breaks all over again when another one has been added,” Hicks said. “No mother wants her child to be forgotten.”
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LCpl Janos V. Lutz PTS Memorial Wall
Photos and stories of about 250 veterans nationwide who committed suicide.
When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. May 24-25
Where: Cafe 27, 4690 U.S. Highway 27, Weston
Information: lcpllutzlivetotell.org, Facebook.com/lcpllutzlivetotell