How Soon We Forget the Veteran Who Attacked the White House

The VA's outpatient clinic in Corpus Christi, Texas is seen in 2009. The VA's outpatient clinic in Corpus Christi, Texas is seen in 2009. Flickr user qnr

When a deranged man jumps a 9-foot fence and storms into the White House, the most obvious questions involve security—and so these were among Monday's headlines: "The Secret Service Considers Bigger White House Buffer" (The Washington Post) and "White House May Check Tourists Blocks Away" (The New York Times).

Beware of the most obvious. The most important angles often lurk below the surface. What struck me about Day 3 coverage of the White House breach was how the intruder had all but been erased from the stories.

His name is Omar J. Gonzalez. He is a decorated Iraq war veteran from Texas, a sniper who was badly wounded by a homemade bomb.  He suffers posttraumatic-stress disorder, his family says. For two years, Gonzales has been homeless and living alone in the wild and in campgrounds. What happened to him? What happens to men and women like him when they return home from war?

Twelve paragraphs into Monday's story about the intrusion, The Post told readers that Gonzalez is 42. The last paragraph offered a bit more:

A member of Gonzalez's family told The Washington Post that he was suffering from posttraumatic-stress disorder and had been living out of his car for more than a year. A Secret Service agent said Gonzalez told him after being handcuffed that he was concerned that the "atmosphere was collapsing" and that he needed to get the word to the president, so he could tell the citizens. It was unclear what Gonzalez meant.

The Times story didn't mention Gonzales's name until the 11th paragraph, which made no mention of his war service or health issues. The paragraph did remind readers that Gonzalez wielded a knife and could face 10 years in prison.

If you want to know more about Gonzalez, you need to go back a couple of days to stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times:

The intruder who scaled a White House fence and made it through the front doors was an Army veteran diagnosed with combat trauma, but authorities said Saturday the case was still under investigation.

A family member in California said Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas, near Fort Hood, has been homeless and living alone in the wild and in campgrounds with his two pet dogs for the last two years.

"We talked to him on 9/11 and he said he planned to go to a Veterans Administration hospital to seek treatments," said the family member, who asked that he not be identified pending completion of the Secret Service investigation.

 "He's been depressed for quite some time," the relative said. "He'd been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I suspect he stopped taking it, otherwise this wouldn't have happened."

The story goes on to say that Gonzalez joined the Army in the mid-1990s. He was diagnosed with posttraumatic-stress disorder after his first tour in Iraq, the relative said, but was sent back for a second tour.

During a second tour, about three years ago, Gonzalez was reportedly injured by a homemade explosive device. "His job was running patrols in Baghdad when his Humvee was hit," the family member said.

"A portion of his foot was amputated," he said, "and the evidence is the limp you see in the video of him running across the White House lawn."

You read that right. Watch the video—and remember that Gonzalez used to run into battle in Iraq.

I'm not excusing Gonzalez's actions. Protecting the president, his family, and the White House complex is a matter of national security. The legal system will determine whether Gonzalez is guilty and whether he serves time in jail. The Secret Service will tighten its procedures.

In the meantime, read The Washington Post's "A Legacy of Pain and Pride," a special report based on a poll that found more than half of the 2.6 million Americans deployed to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "struggle with physical or mental-health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life, and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation's veterans."

The long conflicts, which have required many troops to deploy multiple times and operate under an almost constant threat of attack, have exacted a far more widespread emotional toll than previously recognized by most government studies and independent assessments: One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger—two key indicators of posttraumatic stress.

Also read this VA report showing 10 percent to 18 percent of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer PTSD upon their return home. Those like Gonzalez who served in Iraq had higher rates of PTSD than Afghanistan veterans, the report said.

Our recent veterans are seeking care at VA more than ever before. VA data show that from 2002 to 2009, 1 million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and became eligible for VA care. Of those troops, 46 percent came in for VA services. Of those veterans who used VA care, 48 percent were diagnosed with a mental-health problem.

However, many veterans with mental-health problems have not come in for services.

One of the reasons that veterans don't seek care, the VA admits, is that veterans don't trust the VA—they don't believe treatment is effective and they have problems with access, such as cost or location of treatment.

The next time a lawmaker condemns the Secret Service for allowing Gonzalez to breach the White House, nod your head—but don't stop there. Ask whether Washington will truly transform the VA, or stop at the tinkering done this summer. Demand to know why troubled veterans like Gonzalez continue to fall through the cracks. Insist that we do more as a country to treat them, house them, and employ them—and not erase them.

(Top image via Flickr user qnr)

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