For months after U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Janos Lutz took his own life, his mother found the pain unbearable and growing worse.
"I was spiraling down, sometimes not able to get out of bed," said Janine Lutz of Davie. "I just hurt too much."
On Sunday morning, one year to the day that the combat veteran died at 24, Janine Lutz was surrounded by several hundred people, including many military veterans, who showed up at C.B. Smith Park to pay tribute to her son and the way she has chosen to remember him.
The occasion was the PTSD Awareness Ride, an event that has provided a focus for her grief while inspiring similar activities in other parts of the country to call attention to the toll of post-traumatic stress disorder on military veterans.
Lutz hopes the Awareness Ride will become an annual event.
"This honors my son and his service," Lutz said of the several hundred participants, including many motorcyclists, who rode in a police-escorted caravan from Western High School in Davie, Lutz's alma mater, to the park. "He's got his brothers' back even though he is not here."
A machine gunner, Lutz earned a reputation as a hard-nosed Marine who survived hellish deployments while winning 13 service commendations.
One of those deployments was to southern Helmand province in Afghanistan, where he and his 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, fought the Taliban and suffered several casualties.
"That deployment was serious, highly kinetic, violent, with firefights every day," said George Todd Jr., 28, a Navy hospital corpsman who served with Lutz. "I remember him as a really fun guy, always pulling pranks, and a guy with a unique ability to be a very good Marine."
When he returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., Lutz underwent treatment for PTSD. The family's dog, Kobe, joined him on the base and was trained as a service dog.
Back home, Lutz often showed signs of PTSD, his mother said, including avoiding crowds and becoming enraged. Still, in the weeks before his death, he was taking medication, in counseling, bicycling and enrolled in college.
"I didn't know. I just didn't know any of the warning signs," said Janine Lutz. "John served five years, we knew he had PTSD, but we didn't know what that meant."
To conclude her remarks Sunday, Lutz held up a ceramic elephant, labeled with the letters PTSD, then dropped it onto the concrete floor of the shelter. The fall shattered the elephant and — at least symbolically, she said — the taboo on discussing what to many remains an uncomfortable subject.
"PTSD is the thing that nobody wants to talk about," she said. "But we're going to talk about it now."
For more information, go to ptsdawarenessride.org.