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
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.| The Cable |