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Fatal mistake? 

Fort Carson launches investigation into death of sergeant who took lethal mix of medications

click to enlarge In uniform or celebrating at Christmas, Staff Sgt. Mark - Waltz was devoted to his family.
  • In uniform or celebrating at Christmas, Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz was devoted to his family.

After two tours in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz struggled with excruciating physical pain and combat stress. On April 30, he drifted into a coma.

The 40-year-old Fort Carson soldier, after taking a lethal combination of powerful medications, died on a couch in his Colorado Springs home.

His death wasn't a suicide. It was an "accident," according to an El Paso County Coroner's report that concluded the culprit was "mixed drug intoxication."

Less than three days before his death, the post's Evans Army Community Hospital had prescribed methadone to Waltz, which was added to his morphine prescription. Combining the two drugs caused an overdose, according to coroner Dr. Robert Bux.

Renea Waltz says her husband suffered from chronic lower-back pain, and that a doctor had earlier prescribed medication for that reason. The coroner's report states that Waltz was also taking morphine for "breakthrough pain."

The death has spawned an investigation of the standard of care at the hospital, says Dee McNutt, Fort Carson spokeswoman.

The investigation will have internal and external elements to provide a comprehensive and "unbiased look at the case," McNutt says, adding that investigators are likely to explore specific details, such as whether Waltz was taking his medication as prescribed.

Renea Waltz, meanwhile, believes the hospital committed "malpractice."

"They killed my husband," she says.

PTSD diagnosis

Renea Waltz sobs as she recalls the difficult few months before her husband's death. Mark Waltz faced discipline from commanders, she says, after seeking help for physical and mental health issues following his return from his second Iraq tour late last year.

Fort Carson and Evans Hospital already are enduring a Government Accountability Office probe into allegations that soldiers suffering from combat stress aren't receiving timely care. And earlier this year, the Army's flagship health-care facility, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was exposed as offering substandard care and conditions.

In March, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army surgeon general, stepped down following public statements by Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., that William Latham, a Fort Carson staff sergeant, died in 2003 because of a medical mistake. The Defense Department had long reported that his death was the result "of his wounds" inflicted during a raid on a suspected arms cache in Iraq (csindy.com/csindy/2007-03-15/news2.html).

Mark Waltz, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, suffered after a bomb exploded near him and he had to pick up parts of dead bodies, he wrote at one point.

Recent medical records provided by his wife add detail. They indicate that in addition to lower-back problems, he suffered from PTSD, a condition that arises when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.

On Feb. 20, he called his wife to tell her he was drinking on the job to ease his pain.

"I told him to immediately report it," Renea Waltz remembers.

click to enlarge In uniform or celebrating at Christmas, Staff Sgt. Mark - Waltz was devoted to his family.
  • In uniform or celebrating at Christmas, Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz was devoted to his family.

He agreed that he needed help and went to a superior. He was ordered to take a sobriety test, which he failed.

A staff sergeant wrote in a report that Mark Waltz indicated "that for the last week that he had been drinking every day due to a change in his pain medications and that drinking helped him deal with the pain."

Mark Waltz was reprimanded as he sought to be enrolled in a substance-abuse program. So Renea Waltz asked for help from Spc. Brandon Wampler, one of her husband's underlings.

Wampler, who says he helped the sergeant navigate the post's health-care system, worried that his sergeant felt "bullied" by commanders.

"I kind of just helped him to take the initiative to go talk to somebody and tell them the situation and find out what his rights were in the situation," Wampler says, adding that he thinks the Army needs better "sensitivity training."

Days later, Mark Waltz was evaluated at Cedar Springs Behavioral Health System, which provides care to Fort Carson soldiers. He felt he was starting to receive help, his wife says.

In late March, he again sought care for his back pain at an Evans Hospital clinic, where a doctor provided a 72-hour convalescent leave slip.

A physical profile by the chief of the Evans Hospital pain clinic indicated Staff Sgt. Waltz was in such bad shape that he should not train physically, lift heavy objects or stand longer than 20 minutes. Yet commanders reprimanded him for missing assigned duty during the 72 hours, including when he was receiving care at the clinic.

On April 9, 1st Sgt. S.L. Convert wrote on a disciplinary form that the doctor's slip "does not have to be honored by the unit commander if the soldier in question has a history of questionable illnesses."

The questionable history wasn't specified on the form, and Mark Waltz checked a box stating his disagreement with the disciplinary measure.

Waltz's mental health worsened after that, Wampler says, adding that he feared the sergeant could be suicidal.

By April 19, Waltz was back at Cedar Springs. On April 27, he was prescribed the methadone that contributed to his death, according to Bux. Mark Waltz was not drinking the night he died, according to the coroner's report.

McNutt could not confirm the name of the doctor at Evans who prescribed the drug.

It's probable Waltz's commanders at Fort Carson are conducting an unrelated internal query into whether he was treated fairly in recent months. McNutt could not confirm such a query.

'He always loved me'

Renea Waltz says she is having difficulty coming to terms with the tumult of the final months of her husband's life, and its abrupt end.

Several weeks ago, she read aloud the details of her husband's autopsy and began sobbing as she came to the description of the dragon's-head tattoo with the inscription "Renea" on her husband's left shoulder.

The family soon will leave Colorado Springs for Ohio, where Renea and Mark Waltz first met as children. They followed different paths. She got married, had kids, got divorced and then married Mark, who had remained single.

"He always loved me," Renea Waltz says. She adds that the move will bring her closer to her husband, who is buried in Ohio.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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