This story has been updated.
The last thing the Veterans Affairs Department — an agency that’s trying to kick its reputation for negligence — needs is a new scandal. Especially one that reveals an extraordinary lack of sensitivity to veterans’ suicides and the epidemic of other mental health issues facing those who have served in the nation’s armed forces.
But that’s what’s brewing at a VA medical center in Indianapolis, where a social worker has been caught emailing her colleagues photos of a toy Christmas elf, dressed as one of the hospital’s patients, begging for Xanax and hanging himself with a set of Christmas lights.
The Dec. 18 email sent by Robin Paul, a manager at the Roudebush VA Medical Center, was obtained by the Indianapolis Star. Now that the email has been made public, the local center and the VA are trying to make clear that behavior like Paul’s will not be tolerated.
A spokeswoman for the Roudebush center told the paper that administrators had known about the email months ago and had taken administrative action, but on Tuesday, Paul was placed on administrative leave, a Fox affiliate in Indianapolis reported.
Tom Mattice, director of the Roudebush Center told the station, “The email message that was sent out by Ms. Paul is completely and totally unacceptable. It in no way reflects the attitudes of our staff toward our patients.”
Already, the outrage has spread to Washington, where Indiana lawmakers and veterans groups are demanding an independent investigation into what happened to make sure it was an isolated event.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called for Paul’s firing.
“I hope that leadership within Roudebush grasps the fact that supporting veterans and their families must be their top priority, not saving a disgraced employee,” she told the Star.
A spokesperson for the VA apologized to veterans and their families, and echoed Mattice, calling the behavior “completely unacceptable.”
“This one incident is not reflective of the quality care and services that hundreds of thousands of Veterans receive every day from VA employees across the country,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We are committed to treating our Veterans with respect and compassion and providing them the quality mental health care they have earned and deserve.”
Suicide remains an urgent problem for those who have served in the armed forces, with as many as 22 veterans committing suicide every day. More than 3,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their own lives since 9/11.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images