By Julie Robinson
A Putnam County veteran who was taking medication prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder died in his sleep earlier this month, in circumstances similar to the deaths of three other area veterans earlier this year.
Derek Johnson, 22, of Hurricane, served in the infantry in the Middle East in 2005, where he was wounded in combat and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while hospitalized.
Military doctors prescribed Paxil, Klonopin and Seroquel for Johnson, the same combination taken by veterans Andrew White, 23, of Cross Lanes; Eric Layne, 29, of Kanawha City; and Nicholas Endicott of Logan County. All were in apparently good physical health when they died in their sleep.
Johnson was taking Klonopin and Seroquel, as prescribed, at the time of his death, said his grandmother, Georgeann Underwood of Hurricane. Both drugs are frequently used in combination to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Klonopin causes excessive drowsiness in some patients.
He also was taking a painkiller for a back injury he sustained in a car accident about a week before his death, but was no longer taking Paxil.
On May 1, the night before he died, Johnson called his grandfather, Duck Underwood, and asked if he could pick up his 5-year-old son and take him to school the next day. Johnson and his wife, Stacie, have three children, all under 6 years old. Their car had been totaled in the accident the previous week.
When Underwood arrived to pick up the boy the next morning, his knocks were not answered at first. He heard Stacie Johnson screaming. She opened the door and told him she couldn’t wake her husband. They called paramedics, who could not revive him. Doctors did not declare an immediate cause of death.
Toxicology and autopsy results could take as long as 60 days, authorities told the family.
“I want to know the cause of death,” said Ray Johnson, Derek’s father. “Stacie said he was fine that night. Everything was normal. He kissed her goodnight and went to sleep.”
Stan White, father of soldier Andrew White, has become an advocate for families of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. During his son’s struggle with the disorder and since his death, White has tracked similar cases. He knows of about eight in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
He and his wife, Shirley, introduced themselves to the Johnsons and Underwoods at Derek’s funeral and offered their help. He is in contact with the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Rockefeller requested an investigation into these deaths, which is ongoing, said Steven Broderick, the senator’s press secretary.
“When I talked to his family about Derek, I realized it was the same old story,” said White. “It was all too familiar. He was taking those same drugs as the others, and, yes, I believe they are still prescribing that combination.”
After speaking with family members, White wonders if the patients are taking the medicine as prescribed. He said PTSD patients suffer short-term memory loss and shouldn’t be relied upon to track their medications.
Georgeann Underwood agrees.
“You shouldn’t put vulnerable, mentally unstable people on drugs like that,” she said.
An outgoing, personable young man who worked at several jobs to support his young family, Johnson frequently was offered other jobs by customers in the stores where he worked, Underwood said.
In 2006, he returned from the Middle East depressed and short-tempered. Johnson had operated an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or rapid-fire machine gun, and rarely spoke about his experiences there.
After his military prescriptions ran out, Johnson’s medications were prescribed by private physicians because he refused to go the VA hospitals where he said he was required to wait long periods of time for appointments. His grandparents paid for his medications.
“He had a very short fuse,” Ray Johnson said. “That was the biggest difference in his personality after he came back.”
Until his death, he worked 12 or 16 hours a day. He was an electrical apprentice at the John Amos Power Plant until he was let go when his work hours approached the union limit for apprentices. He was on his way to apply for another job when the car he drove was rear-ended on April 24.
Johnson died May 2.
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