Lariam and a Lost Gunny

By Rick Rogers


The last time I saw Matt Hevezi was six years ago. He was bunking behind a skateboard shop in a hardscrabble Oceanside neighborhood.

For lunch Matt grilled chicken over smoldering coals; bristly quills serrated the naked wings. A boom box cranked death metal and cigarette butts dotted the ground.

Matt Hevezi used to be Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Hevezi, one of the finest photojournalists in the Marine Corps. You can still find his work on the web.

What’s much harder to find these days is him. But truth be told, he lost the world long before the world lost him.

His Lariam tale began in Okinawa circa 2001 with his first doses of the powerful anti-malarial drug he dutifully swallowed for a mission to Thailand.

His story, 17-year military career and life as he knew it, ended in September 2005 after a military board at Camp Pendleton kicked him out of the service for what amounted to erratic behavior.

Matt had called weeks prior seeking to save his career and to spread the word that Lariam – also known as Mefloquine — had terrible side effects unknown to most users.

He knew, though.

Shortly after taking Lariam, Matt developed serious mental issues, including the belief his Okinawa landlord was trying to poison him.

Symptoms worsened and multiplied: nightmares, depression, auditory hallucinations and mental breakdowns for which he was hospitalized repeatedly.

Army literature suggests such symptoms occur at a rate of between one per 2,000-13,000 people. Critics of Lariam contend the number is much higher.

Matt Hevezi’s life cratered; he lost his grasp on reality; his military career; and, finally, his family.

He wanted the press at his separation board to hear his story. A story Marine Corps officers had refused to accept despite mounting evidence to the contrary: That the anti-malarial drug might have sparked Matt’s auspicious flameout that destroyed him as a Marine, a husband and a father.

At the last minute, a Marine colonel blocked my access.

The story never saw print; Matt Hevezi was evicted from the Marine Corps. I lost track of him.

Jump ahead several years. Right before Thanksgiving, an Associated Press story reported the Army had decided to curtail dispensing Lariam after nearly four decades of use.

“Mefloquine is a zombie drug. It’s dangerous, and it should have been killed off years ago,” Dr. Remington Nevin, an Army major and epidemiologist, was quoted as saying. Nevin claims his research proves the drug can be toxic to the brain.

In the same AP story, retired Navy Capt. Gary Foster recalled side effects from taking Lariam in 2008 and 2009.

“I began to suffer short term memory loss, not able to recall what I had done earlier,” he wrote in an email. “I also had more bouts of anxiety, and I cannot for the life of me tell you why.”

Nevin angered superiors by publicly calling Mefloquine “probably the worst-suited drug for the military.”

“It is a story of the military bureaucracy gradually and reluctantly coming to terms with a tragic, possibly catastrophic, decades-long series of errors and missteps,” Nevin said of the military’s Lariam use.

Not all services have come to such terms.

In 2008, the Army dispensed 8,574 prescriptions of the drug. In 2010, that number fell to 2,054 as the service transitioned to other anti-malarial drugs.

While Army and Air Force have increasingly found alternatives for Lariam, namely Doxycycline and Malarone, in recent years; the Marine Corps and Navy have not.

In fact, those services have slightly increased their Lariam prescriptions, from about 1,200 in 2008 to nearly 2,000 last year.

Matt Hevezi, wherever you are, I wish you well. At the very least your case deserves a rehearing in light of recent research findings; in a just world that would happen.

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