Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robert David Jaffee Headshot

Suicidal Veteran Needs Help, Not Jail Time

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

When a suicidal person seeks help, we try to steer him or her to a safe place, a psychiatrist, a psychiatric ward, and, if need be, an emergency room. When Sean Duvall, a Persian Gulf War veteran, sought help, he ended up being charged with four counts of manufacturing and possessing a homemade gun. Duvall could face a 40-year sentence in federal prison for bringing that gun onto the Virginia Tech campus, where Seung-hui Cho murdered 32 people in 2007.

According to the Washington Post, Duvall, who served in the Navy, had been treated for depression at a VA hospital in 2010. On June 8, 2011, when he called the suicide hotline number for veterans, he was unemployed, homeless and prepared to take his life. He was carrying a gun he had constructed out of a pipe, a letter to his family and another letter indicating that he wished to be buried in the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery.

In calling for help at his most desperate hour, Duvall showed courage, a different kind of courage from that which he displayed in defeating the Iraqis in the first Gulf War. What he showed was courage in the face of stigma against mental illness, stigma that is particularly acute in the military.

I have written before about the high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression among veterans. According to a 2008 Rand study, there may be as many as 300,000 veterans afflicted with those mental illnesses.

I have also written about the need for President Obama to write condolence letters to the families of all troops who take their lives, whether they do so in a war zone or not.

But here is a case, where Duvall, who was barely hanging on to life, reached out by phoning a confidential hot line. The VA counselor showed great care in talking to him and sent police officers to the scene, where they drove him to a psychiatric facility. He was treated and released before the U.S. Attorney's office charged him.

According to the Post, Duvall is now employed as a machinist, living in an apartment and doing well, factors which will hopefully influence a judge in Roanoke, Virginia, to dismiss the charges.

It baffles me that Timothy Heaphy, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, would seek to prosecute a veteran, who clearly was never a threat to anyone but himself. That is not to say that Duvall is a saint. As the Post reported, "between 2006 and 2010, he was found guilty of several offenses, including public intoxication, driving while intoxicated and destruction of property."

Still, Duvall was honorably discharged from the Navy, comes from a military family and appears to have been a law-abiding citizen until falling on hard times.

It may be that Heaphy wishes to take a harsh stance on all perceived crime, even one with no victims, the so-called broken windows theory. Or perhaps, he is sensitive to the setting of Duvall's suicidal phone call, Virginia Tech, which has been convulsed more than once by a deadly shooter.

Whatever Heaphy's reasoning, it is not only shoddy, it is harmful to veterans and to all those who have been suicidal.

I know something about suicide, having battled feelings of worthlessness and contemplated taking my life in 1997 and 1999. In neither case did I have a gun, but in both cases I sought help, phoning my mother the first time and my psychiatrist the second time. Both of them directed me to a psychiatric ward, where I recuperated and was released.

Studies show that most of those who are suicidal want to be saved. That is why they reach out to others. If the U.S. Attorney's office is allowed to prosecute Sean Duvall, that will deter people from phoning a suicide hot line and jeopardize the lives of many decent citizens clinging to life and seeking a connection with someone on the other end of the line.