‘This gives my tragedy purpose’: Gold Star mom fights for all troops to have annual medical exams
Stars and Stripes May 23, 2023
KILLEEN, Texas — Margie Taylor walked the halls of Congress for three days in February to speak with every member of the House Armed Services Committee and every lawmaker who represents Texas.
Her feet were tired and blistered, but she was determined to advocate for a change that she believes would have saved her son’s life.
“This gives my tragedy purpose,” said Taylor, who lives outside of Houston.
Her son, Spc. Joey Lenz, was a generator mechanic assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Cavazos when he died Feb. 1, 2022, of a heart attack. The medical examiner’s report on his autopsy showed his heart was enlarged three times the normal size for a man his age, Taylor said. Lenz was 32.
In the year since his death, Taylor has begun to advocate in Congress for all service members to have an annual physical exam that includes blood tests. She thinks if this were already a requirement, Lenz’s heart condition would have been noticed and his life saved.
The Defense Department requires service members participate in a periodic health assessment, which is conducted through an online questionnaire that troops fill out on their own. It’s then reviewed by a health care provider and face-to-face visits are only done if needed, according to Defense Health Agency regulations.
Taylor said she was shocked when she learned of the self-reported medical assessment after son’s death. He had not had an in-person physical since he enlisted in 2017, she learned.
“School-aged kids have to get physicals, some employment requires you to have annual physicals, and as we get older, we get annual physicals,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we do this for our service men and women who volunteer to serve our country?”
Taylor hosted a rally for support Tuesday at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, about 9 miles from Fort Cavazos, where she read the names of soldiers who have died at the Army post since 2016. The list was not complete, but she read roughly 160 names of service members provided by families, friends or she discovered herself.
After each name, Brian Tally, a former Marine sergeant, rang a bell. Talley, who led the way in 2021 for medical malpractice reform at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, told the crowd that he supports Taylor’s efforts for change.
“Most of our military is currently being cared for, or lack thereof, by online medical self-assessments,” he said. “My question is, how would anybody ever know they had underlying and potential life-threatening conditions by simply checking the box, thinking everything is OK because you may not be posing any symptoms at that given moment?”
Taylor’s proposal has support in Washington from the Navy veteran who represents her in Congress, Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee. He encouraged her to visit Capitol Hill in February and speak directly to lawmakers.
She made a spreadsheet, mapped out her visits by building and by floor, stopping at 53 offices. At each, she left a copy of her proposal printed on the heaviest cardstock that she could find.
Luttrell got the proposal into the pending National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal 2024, which begins Oct. 1.
The annual bill outlines defense priorities and spending and the committee is expected to begin discussions on the bill in the coming months. The process will shape what is included in the bill that the committee presents to the House for a vote.
“Through an NDAA submission, I’m working to increase understanding and transparency for the routine medical screening and treatment of our service members,” Luttrell said in a statement. “As a veteran myself, I am forever grateful to all those who serve and sacrifice for our country, and I will continue to work to improve the lives of our service members.”
It’s not guaranteed Taylor’s proposal will make it through what is called the mark-up phase of the NDAA, and she knows the cost of performing an in-person physical with blood tests on all 1.3 million active-duty military members is her biggest enemy. A cost analysis hasn’t been conducted, Taylor said.
Luttrell’s office declined to comment on the defense authorization bill until the committee releases it later this year.
“I’ll probably cry,” Taylor said about the possibility of failure in this legislative session. “But I'm not stopping.”
She also filed a $32 million wrongful death claim in December against the Army, arguing the service medical staff overprescribed Lenz medications when his records showed they had detected issues with his heart. Medical tests conducted at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Cavazos showed signs of a heart attack in March 2021, Taylor said.
However, her son wasn’t even informed about the heart attack and received no follow-up testing or treatment, she said.
The claim is still pending with the Army, which recently required Taylor to prove she was Lenz’s mother — something they did not require when he died and she was contacted as his next-of-kin.
In making her visits to Congress, Taylor said she’s also come to embrace the term, “Gold Star Mom.” Just saying the phrase still chokes her up. She recently joined Texas/Oklahoma Gold Star Mothers, an organization for mothers who lost their child in military service. As she was installed as the group’s second vice president last month, she said she finally understood the full breadth of her new identity.
“[My son] made an oath to serve our country and [he wasn’t] able to finish it. It is [my] obligation now as American Gold Star mother to fulfill that obligation,” Taylor said.