"Sometimes they have drug and alcohol problems and when they feel that the VA is ignoring them, not answering the phone, failing to return calls for assistance or there are long wait times, they get more and more disgruntled. The VA is ripe for a mass killing but no one is listening to us."
The speaker is John Glidewell, former chief of police at the Cheyenne, Wyo., VA medical center, who was quoted in a Washington Post story a few days ago. As I read his words, I realized they sounded a far deeper note of desperation than the story was addressing, even though, my God, the events being reported on were the fodder of scandal.
The story was a follow-up about a murder that took place at another VA clinic, in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 6. Jerry Serrato, an Iraq vet whose claim of PTSD, and the subsequent treatment and benefits, was denied, fatally shot the clinic's chief psychologist, Timothy Fjordbak, then killed himself.
Beyond the terrible details of the double killing and the fact that "there have been a string of shootings and violent incidents in VA medical centers across the country," the story managed to sound only a superficial warning, it seemed: about the lack of metal detectors and surveillance cameras at VA clinics, and, of course, the need for a larger, better trained staff to deal with all of America's distraught vets.
All of which leads me back to Glidewell's quote and its implicit linking of "disgruntled" and "mass killing" -- as though the transition from one to the other in American society is obvious and fully accepted by now and armed irritation, you might say, is simply the way things are.
Yes, by all means, the VA is failing American veterans terribly, with wholesale claim denials and scandalous waiting times and a general, contemptuous dismissal of the psychological and physical wounds American vets are coming home with -- that is, a rich man's investment in the waging of war, to the tune of many trillions of dollars, but a pauper's investment in its aftermath. Something else is going on here as well, however, that's deeper and darker and not limited to the failure of government programs.
In a column I wrote almost a decade ago, I reflected: "Bush's war to promote terror -- the perfect self-sustaining fear machine -- isn't just generating an endless supply of hardened enemies beyond our borders. It is also creating the conditions of social breakdown and psychological blowback within our borders. Guess what? Under Plan Bush, we'll never be safe."
This seems to be coming to pass. If a word like "disgruntled" -- which describes, at worst, an everyday sense of being mistreated or snubbed -- can flow seamlessly into "mass killing," then America is at a serious precipice. We're becoming a heavily armed, mentally ill society. And our primary institutions are either contributing directly to the situation or, at best, failing to notice it.
The obvious mega-contributor to our social breakdown is the unending War on Terror, of course. It's a war cynically waged in two directions: at the enemies beyond our borders that we've manufactured and the collateral-damage-in-waiting who live with them; and at the lower and middle classes (the 99 percent) here at home, who have the nerve to expect a reasonable share of the empire's wealth.
The War on Terror is our first prolonged post-Reagan war, waged in the context of social austerity. Sorry, vets. Sorry, poor people. There's almost no social safety net anymore, even to care for those who used up their physical, emotional and spiritual health participating in that war. There's only... more war, in the form of domestic surveillance, militarized police departments and the like. This is the making of a broken, Fourth World, emotionally disturbed society, which sees enemies everywhere and addresses all of its spiraling ills militarily.
Consider another recent, tragic news fragment: the death, this past Sunday afternoon, of Johnathan Guillory, a 32-year-old vet who served in both Iraq and (as a contract worker) Afghanistan. He was shot and killed by two police officers at his home outside Phoenix. He was married. He had two young sons.
Why he died isn't completely certain, but he was clearly caught in the jaws of America's war on itself. He suffered, or claimed to suffer, from PTSD. His wife told Phoenix TV station KTVK: "Sometimes he couldn't even deal with day-to-day life. It was a struggle for him to get through each morning, but he did."
He once sought emergency help from the VA but, "they turned him away," his wife said. "They told him there was no room, and that he'd have to make an appointment."
Neighbors said there were occasional disturbances at the couple's residence. On the afternoon in question, police went to the house in response to several 911 hang-up calls. Police say Guillory pointed a gun at them and they fired in self-protection. His wife denies he had a gun and said there had not been a disturbance. And this is where the story ends: in a she-said, they-said mystery. The news cycle moves on.
We don't know what really happened. All we know is that a vet and dad is dead (another one), and our militarized insecurity marches on.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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