Friday, February 24, 2012

Charlotte Observer: Charges Against Suicidal Gulf War Veteran Spur Outrage

This article is from the Charlotte Observer:


Charges Against Suicidal Veteran Spur Outrage

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post.
  • Gulf War veteran Sean Duvall, on right, smiles at his graduation from Navy training in the early 1990s. Family photo - The Washington Post
At the lowest moment of his life, Sean Duvall pulled out his cellphone just past midnight and called the suicide hotline. He was carrying a final note to his family, a letter confirming his eligibility to be buried in the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery and a homemade gun fashioned from a pipe.

He told the Department of Veterans Affairs counselor who answered the hotline that June night that he was going to kill himself.

Stay put, the counselor urged him, after learning that Duvall had wandered onto the campus of Virginia Tech. Help is on the way.

Soon a police officer arrived and took the 45-year-old homeless Gulf War veteran to a psychiatric facility, where he was treated for depression and began feeling better about his life and prospects.

Had it ended at that, Duvall's story would be a triumph, evidence that the efforts to save veterans - who take their lives at a rate of 18 a day - are having an impact. But what happened next has infuriated veterans groups and mental health advocates.

Shortly after Duvall was released from the hospital he found himself in trouble again. This time with the law.

Duvall, who served in the Navy and lives outside Roanoke, now faces four federal counts related to manufacturing and possessing the homemade gun, which could lead to a 40-year prison sentence.

A violation of trust?

Veterans groups and mental health advocates warn that Duvall's prosecution could have a chilling effect on distressed veterans who might be contemplating suicide.

"Every veteran I've talked to is outraged," said Dan Karnes, president of the Roanoke Valley Veterans Council. "When we have veterans that are coming back from wars now, they'll think twice about seeking help when they see what was done to him."

Another focus of their ire: the man in charge of the office pursuing the charges against Duvall. If anyone should be sensitive to the needs of veterans, they say, it should be Timothy Heaphy, who is the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and the son-in-law of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

And the case's military connections don't end with Shinseki, a retired Army chief of staff. Randy Cargill, Duvall's public defender, is also a veteran and West Point graduate, who argues that the country Duvall served is now betraying him. Cargill has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, saying his client was calling a confidential hotline and that by prosecuting him the government is violating that trust.

Duvall "risked everything for his country," Cargill wrote. "He became a link in the chain of mutual trust that is the backbone of our armed forces. He was there when his comrades needed him. And when he needed help, he trusted his government would provide it on the terms offered - in confidence."

Through a spokesman, Heaphy declined to comment. But his office has argued that it has an obligation to prosecute Duvall, who admitted to making and possessing the weapon and was on the Virginia Tech campus, the site of a mass shooting in 2007, at the time of his call. By responding and getting him help, authorities "saved Duvall's life," Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald R. Wolthuis wrote in response to the motion to dismiss the charges.

Threats must be reported

In cases where there is an imminent threat, VA counselors have an obligation to notify law enforcement under agency regulations.

But the VA has made concerted efforts to keep veterans out of jail through a program, launched in 2009, called the Veteran Justice Outreach Initiative, which is designed "to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among veterans."

In a statement, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said veterans should have confidence in the crisis line: "Calling the Veterans Crisis Line is an act of courage, and VA crisis responders are there to provide help and save veterans' lives."

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